Because, I mean, look at this list.
“Be good. Be kind. Love each other. Fuck everything else..” — Jenny Lawson
(From a Lithub conversation with John Scalzi. The whole thing’s lovely.)
You’ve probably seen this referenced elsewhere, but the very odd tale of how Dorothy Parker’s remains finally came home to New York is well worth your time. Trust me.
Owing presumably to quarantine, the current issue of the New Yorker is all material from their archives.
It being the New Yorker, they’re all gems — including a man-on-the-ground piece about Black voter registration efforts in Mississippi in 1964 that includes a conversation with Dr King — but the most surprising is this, their choice for fiction:
Donna Tartt on the criminally overlooked Charles Portis.
You don’t know the name, do you? Well, he wrote True Grit, which has now been a film twice: once, as a vehicle for John Wayne, and then again 10 years ago by the Coens. The latter is far superior, probably for hewing much closer to the novel.
Also, Jeff Bridges is a far better actor than John “One Note” Wayne.
Patricia Lockwood eviscerates John Updike, deservedly so, in this longest piece at the London Review of Books. Make time, book nerds; there are few literary traditions more delightful than this sort of body slam.
In a 1997 review for the New York Observer, the recently kinged David Foster Wallace diagnosed how far Updike had fallen in the esteem of a younger generation. ‘Penis with a thesaurus’ is the phrase that lives on, though it is not the levelling blow it first appears; one feels oddly proud, after all, of a penis that has learned to read. Today, he has fallen even further, still in the pantheon but marked by an embarrassed asterisk: died of pussy-hounding. No one can seem to agree on his surviving merits. He wrote like an angel, the consensus goes, except when he was writing like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.
The whole thing is brilliant. My hat’s off to Lockwood, for the piece and for the sacrifice of reading so much Updike in order to write it.
And you should be reading them.
Their story “Away With the Wolves” is a really, really great place to start. Please do.
Oh, definitely go read this. The title is a quote from Beckett, as told by his biographer Deirdre Bair.
The linked article begins:
“So you are the one who is going to reveal me for the charlatan that I am.” It was the first thing Samuel Beckett ever said to me on that bitter cold day, November 17th, 1971, as we sat in the minuscule lobby of the Hôtel du Danube on the rue Jacob. I had gone to Paris at his express invitation, to meet him and talk about writing his biography. We were originally scheduled to meet on November 7th, and for ten days I had no idea where he was, because he never showed up and never canceled.
Go. Read. It’s an excerpt from Bair’s new book, Parisian Lives, about Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and herself, which may go on my to-read list.
Beckett to biographer Deirdre Bair, in Paris, 1971: “I will neither help nor hinder you. My friends and family will assist you and my enemies will find you soon enough.”
I don’t remember why I opened this tab, but clearly it’s STILL open because, in the Wikipedia article about Conan author Robert Howard, we find this:
Early 1932 saw Howard taking one of his frequent trips around Texas. He traveled through the southern part of the state with his main occupation being, in his own words, “the wholesale consumption of tortillas, enchiladas and cheap Spanish wine.” In Fredericksburg, while overlooking sullen hills through a misty rain, he conceived of the fantasy land of Cimmeria, a bitter hard northern region home to fearsome barbarians. […]
It was also during this trip that Howard first conceived of the character of Conan. Later, in 1935, Howard claimed in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith that Conan “simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande.”
After seeing the new trailer for the film version of her latest book, I fell down a bit of a Donna Tartt hole online. I’d missed her Charlie Rose interview, for example, which is interesting; she’s famously press-shy and intensely private.
At the bottom of this Google pit I found this archival piece from Vanity Fair, which heralds her as a grand new voice in fiction. The web version dates it from 1999, but it’s written as though it was published closer to the release date of her first novel, The Secret History, in 1992.
Point being, it’s early on in her laconic career. Tartt, for all her accolades and success, is a slow writer. She’s taken a decade to produce each of the two followups to her splash debut. The Little Friend didn’t appear until 2002; her third and most recent work, The Goldfinch, came 11 years later.
Anyway, here’s the point; it’s in the last paragraphs of the Vanity Fair piece:
We’re driving down a dark back road in Bennington, and I suddenly wonder how fame and wealth will take her. “I’m like Huck Finn,” she says. “I can be perfectly happy on no money at all. Now that I have money, my life has changed not a bit. Everybody’s expecting me to buy a condo, make investments. I don’t care about any of that. I like ephemera—books, clothes. Food. That’s all.” I ask, musingly, if she ever intends to settle down and have a family. She shakes her head firmly. “Je ne vais jamais me marier,” she says.
Suddenly she spots, with delight, a whirling flock of goldfinches. “Look at these goldfinches—do you see?” she cries. “Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down—they just fly around and they’re happy for a long time, and just sing and play. And only when it’s insanely late in the year, they kind of break down and build their nests. I love goldfinches,” she sighs, huddling tinily in the big car seat. “They’re my favorite bird.”
Yup, we see you, Ms Tartt.
N. K. Jemisin just won her third Hugo in a row, making her the first person to win three Best Novel Hugos in a row. Each entry of her Broken Earth trilogy won the award, and let me tell you they were all deserved.
Here’s her very, very, very great speech from the award ceremony (“stop texting me!”). Here’s a lovely bit:
This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers — every single mediocre insecure wanna-be who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me cannot possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s meritocracy but when we win it’s identity politics. I get to smile at those people and lift a massive shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.
Oh, the dolphin? Yeah, this: during her reading on the 2016 JoCo Cruise, a crew drill was happening, which meant constant interruptions over the shipwide intercom. Erin and I decided we’d give her an award, and so we did.
Ms Jemisin is awesome. You could do a lot worse than read her work.
Go read “The Entirely Unnecessary Demise of Barnes & Nobel”. It’s astounding and, near as I can tell, completely accurate.
On Monday morning, every single Barnes & Noble location – that’s 781 stores – told their full-time employees to pack up and leave. The eliminated positions were as follows: the head cashiers (those are the people responsible for handling the money), the receiving managers (the people responsible for bringing in product and making sure it goes where it should), the digital leads (the people responsible for solving Nook problems), the newsstand leads (the people responsible for distributing the magazines), and the bargain leads (the people responsible for keeping up the massive discount sections). A few of the larger stores were able to spare their head cashiers and their receiving managers, but not many.
We’re not talking post-holiday culling of seasonal workers. This was the Red Wedding. Every person laid off was a full-time employee. These were people for whom Barnes & Noble was a career. Most of them had given 5, 10, 20 years to the company. In most cases it was their sole source of income.
There was no warning.
But it gets worse.
The people who lost their jobs had been actively assured this would NOT happen for the past several months. Home Office decided last year that these positions – head cashiers, receiving managers, leads – were due to be eliminated… but no layoffs were to take place. All current employees were to be grandfathered in. The positions wouldn’t go away until the people currently holding them chose to leave.
For months they told everyone this.
Then on Monday, each person was called into the manager’s office. Fifteen minutes later, each person gathered up their things and left.
But but but dropped sales, right? Well, about that: go read the whole piece. Barnes set this up by screwing up Christmas in an attempt to shore up the amount of cash on hand. The Barnes leadership are not trying to save the company. They’re trying to get out with giant golden parachutes, and give not two shits for their employees.
This piece, from the New York Observer in 1997, completely obliterates John Updike’s Toward the End of Time.
Mailer, Updike, Roth — the Great Male Narcissists* who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him. And no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60s and 70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.
And the conclusion:
Maybe the only thing the reader ends up appreciating about [protagonist] Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps us figure out what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this gifted author’s recent characters. It’s not that Turnbull is stupid — he can quote Kierkegaard and Pascal on angst and allude to the deaths of Schubert and Mozart and distinguish between a sinistrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc. It’s that he persists in the bizarre adolescent idea that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for ontological despair. And so, it appears, does Mr. Updike — he makes it plain that he views the narrator’s impotence as catastrophic, as the ultimate symbol of death itself, and he clearly wants us to mourn it as much as Turnbull does. I’m not especially offended by this attitude; I mostly just don’t get it. Erect or flaccid, Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.
Among the many proofs available regarding the fundamental capriciousness of the universe is that we’re left with only three (ish) novels from Wallace, and something like an order of magnitude more books from Updike.
Given my well-documented affection for Infinite Jest, I’m more than a little irritated with myself to realize I completely missed my chance to make a copious number of jokes about Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents during my recovery last year. Why, I even spent a week IN A WHEELCHAIR.
Hunter Thompson’s son Juan has never been a public figure, and to my knowledge has never really spoken much about his father or his family.
(Yes, we’re going backward.)
No. Just no. Longtime readers know I have an affection for series detective works (Jack Reacher, Spenser), so occasionally I audition a new line given that Robert Parker is dead and I read way faster than Lee Child can write.
Deal Breaker was not a successful audition.
What a disappointing mishmash! We grabbed this as an (unabridged) audiobook from the library for our Thanksgiving drive, and holy crap it’s a mess. The plot’s all over the place, and the protagonist — with the hilariously unlikely name Myron Bolitar — is completely Mary-Sue territory. He’s a former Duke basketball star! Who won the NCAA! Twice in four years! And was drafted by the Celtics, only to suffer a career-ending injury in a preseason game!
So he became an FBI agent — during which time he apparently did Big Important things that were Off The Record and SEKRIT — and a lawyer! And a sports agent (because obviously)! And a firetruck! And a millionaire! And a lion tamer!
Ok, I made up those last three, but the rest are true. Really.
Oh, it gets better: his best pal is a seemingly milquetoast old-money finance geek (“Windsor Horne Lockwood III,” we are told, with no hint of irony) who is apparently also a former sekrit agent man, only despite being of utterly average build it’s the little guy who’s the scary unbeatable badass and not the six-foot-four former professional athlete. Predictably, too, Lockwood has a questionable moral compass kept in check by his complete loyalty to Bolitar.
It’s also clear that Coben really, really loves Robert Parker’s Spenser novels. Bolitar says things constantly that I’m sure Coben thinks of as clever-like-Spenser (including literary quotes, which is just a bridge too far), but it invariably comes off as badly-executed mimicry. The Spenser analogs keep coming, too: obviously Lockwood is meant to be an adaptation of Spenser’s morally ambiguous pal Hawk, and just as obviously Bolitar’s unfeasibly attractive paramour is patterned on Spenser’s lover Susan.
I get that, if you’re working in detective fiction, it’s gonna be hard to get out from under Parker’s shadow. But it’s totally doable; here, it seems like Coben isn’t even trying (or, worse, it’s a deliberate attempt to capture some of the same readers — not for nothing, I expect, are Bolitar’s reactions to things around sex and women something more suited to someone decades older than Coben himself).
The whole thing is weak sauce, and best avoided. OTOH, it was free (yay libraries!) and helped pass time on I-10, so in that context it wasn’t completely without merit — but those points are kinda like saying a wine “pours well.”
(Yeah, I’m jumping forward.)
Aurora is the tale of a set of interstellar colonists sent from Earth around 500 years from now, bound for the Tau Ceti system. Because this is hard SF set in a near-future real-world, there’s no magic propulsion: they’re cruising along at a pretty good clip — about a tenth of c — but Tau Ceti is 12 light years away. At that pace it’ll still take far more than a human lifetime to reach their destination.
Enter the idea of a generation ship. Generation ships are science fiction “arks” — you load them up with a critical mass of people, resources, animals, soil, etc., and establish a sealed and self-sustaining biosphere in the ship. People are born, live their lives on the ship, have children, grow old, and die, all in transit. The original volunteers will never see the destination, but their descendants might!
It’s an interesting notion, and is by no means unique to Aurora. Check this subset of the Wikipedia article, but you’ve probably seen it before in Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky and episodes of the original Star Trek as well as Voyager. Earth’s wasteful, bloated humans are hanging out on a generation ship in Wall-E, and SyFy’s (pretty awful) Ascension was set on a simulated generation ship that the inhabitants thought was real.
I read this because the notion of a near-future hard-SF interstellar colonization story was interesting to me, especially if it was handled with the same deft hand that Stanley brought to his Mars trilogy twenty years ago. (And regardless of what I say here about Aurora, the Mars books are solid and fascinating.)
Boy howdy was I disappointed.
Candidly, this a bad book. Robinson believes — probably correctly — that the whole idea of a generation ship is inherently and fatally flawed, and that the very idea of dooming subsequent generations to a life lived in space is ethically dodgy at the least. On these points, he’s not wrong. What’s wrong here is that the book is basically a 480-page polemic with only occasional bursts of action or dialog. There is zero character development to speak of, presumably because it would’ve gotten in the way of his Galtian rants about the inevitable collapse of synthetic biospheres or whatever.
Also? Remember those parts in The Martian where Weir goes on at length about the science involved in this-or-that survival project undertaking by Watney? He was dinged for it by some people (not me), and the rightly elided most of it from the film (because films are not books). Robinson goes all in on those sorts of pursuits — about ecology on the starship, about micromanaging the starship during maintenance, and most egregiously for pages and pages and pages (often without paragraph breaks) about the orbital mechanics involved late in the book. What Weir did worked on paper because the book was from Watney’s perspective, and we needed to know his thinking. It fails here for a myriad of reasons, including the overwhelming volume of the repeated technical info dumps, and also the amount of story and development that they shove out. (Seriously: the text is so bloated that you could tell the actual story here in a short magazine article.)
It’s a long, lazy, and fundamentally irritating book. Absolutely skip it.
I’ve gotten terribly, terribly behind, so forgive the omnibus.
- True Grit, by Charles Portis
Underrated, even after the spike in interest after the Coen film. It’s chock full of fantastic language, as in this description: “Not a day goes by but there comes some new report of a farmer bludgeoned, a wife outraged, or a blameless traveller set upon and cut down in a sanguinary ambuscade.” He is, of course, speaking of Oklahoma.
- The Whites, by Richard Price
I was put on this by a pal (howdy, Frazer) after having bounced off Price before — I found him kind of a mess. Assured this was his best work despite being initially published under a pseudonym, I dove in. And found it wanting, again. Oh well.
- Cyclops, by Clive Cussler
This is the one with the improbable plot, unconventional automobile, and unusual boats, when danger lurks but Dirk saves the day. Right.
- Home, by Marilynne Robinson
I discovered, rather late, the enormous and humbling beauty of Gilead, and so I was pleased to discover there were other books that dealt with the same cast and time period, but from other points of view. Sadly, I found none of the stirring magic in Home that had so transfixed me in Gilead.
- Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson
Jesus, Neil, can you please learn to write endings? And, while you’re at it, plausible middles? Anathem and Reamde were so much better than his prior work that I had hope he’d gotten past his former foibles, but this was just kind of a waste. Andy Weir made a novel out of problem solving, and it’s like Neal took entirely the wrong lessons from it, because herein we receive long, involved descriptions of orbital mechanics, how to build in orbit, how to re-terraform the planet, and how to harness a comet, and goddamn near every word of it bored me to tears. And I’m a nerd.
On this day in 1937, the patron saint of Heathen worldwide was born. Happy 78th, Hunter. We’re poorer without you.
So, obviously, I’m all over his run at Game of Thrones. Don’t miss.
Goodnight, Dune is completely brilliant.
There is little I can add to this bit, from my friend Mike:
[L]et me now say that the book is entertaining, and yet transcends entertainment, in the way that most people’s attempts to understand themselves are able to do. It’s funny, but with only a couple of moments that made me laugh out loud—but those were really good: Louis C.K.’s comments on how to approach visiting Amsterdam, and his brother’s description of a scene in The Phantom Menace that continues to make me laugh just thinking about it.
(No, this is not cheating.)
No, I’m not late to the party; this is a re-read. Frankly, I almost never do this, but I was so underwhelmed by The Goldfinch that I bought a new copy of History — a fancier, literary edition, compared with my falling-apart paperback from 20+ years ago — to bask in what I remembered as her best work.
I did this with some trepidation, obviously. Often we go back to works we though amazing, only to discover our tastes have changed, or that we remembered it better than it actually was, or some combination thereof. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed here, though — frankly, the book is probably better than I remembered it. I’m certainly better educated at 45 than I was at 22, so more of her classical references landed with me the second time around.
This isn’t to say it’s not a LITTLE precious. The book does a sometimes-delicate, sometimes-clumsy dance between being timeless and being rooted quite seriously in its era. Her cadre of isolated classics students dress and act as though they could belong to any decade back to the Jazz age, or even the Victorian era, but for occasional references to cars or planes or politics. Their instructor is similarly unmoored in time, in a way that I think academics might envy.
Tartt’s recurring themes and traits are of course here: envy of easy privilege, wastrel figures with big trust funds and family money, an uneasy orbit of New York and wealth, all seen from an outsider who is from the hinterlands and cursed with an inconvenient poverty. Richard is very, very like The Goldfinch’s Theo in all these ways (and, we wonder, not unlike Tartt herself, who left her native Mississippi to attend Bennington, the school that is the transparent inspiration for History‘s Hampden).
The prose here is a bit overwritten, but not in a clangy way, and we would do well to remember how young Tartt was when she wrote it. It’s not really a problem. And you’re made of wood if her descriptions of ur-collegiate Hampden don’t make you nostalgic for your own college years even if you went somewhere not comprised entirely of northeastern university stereotypes.
The story itself has stood up well. It’s not a whodunnit at all; the murder is front and center from page one. The story is how they GET to the murder itself, and remains solidly captivating the whole time. As with my first run through this book, I read it nearly compulsively and finished it in about two days.
I’m rambling, but the point here is that it’s still a solid book well worth your time. I kind of sorry she didn’t get better notice for this one, because I see it as a superior work to Goldfinch despite the latter’s prizewinning resume.
(My post title is a bit misleading; I have of course already ordered my copy.)
(Though, having read it, it makes perfect sense both that Depp is starring in the adaptation, and that the adaptation was apparently a disaster.)
I rarely read fantasy, but after meeting Rothfuss on the nerd cruise I decided I’d make an exception and sample his trilogy. I say “trilogy,” but only two books yet exist, with legions of geeks clamoring for more.
It’s okay. The tale, at least in the first volume, is really two stories: Kvothe, a hero famous in his world, is in hiding as a pub owner, but has been found by a royal Chronicler and cajoled into telling his story. AT the same time, though, Creeping Evil is threatening the land, as is so often the case in such stories. We get very little of the latter story in The Name of the Wind; just enough to set the stage. Mostly, we’re concerned with how an orphaned child manages to become this known-and-feared character.
We don’t get very far here, I’m afraid, but it’s not for want of pages. Rothfuss, like so many of his contemporaries in fantasy, seems to mistake volume for quality. There’s a much more agile book, no less interesting, lurking inside hundreds of extraneous pages. Kvothe’s rise is inevitable, given the framing story, so an endless litany of ups and downs is, beyond a certain point, really just plate-spinning. I was reminded of Gravity, and not in a good way, because you know very well that nothing bad is going to happen to Sandy Bullock. The filmmakers just needed 91 minutes of stuff to happen before she could be safe.
I sorta feel like Rothfuss thought he needed several hundred pages of stuff here before he was willing to let the plot move, and that’s not necessarily so. Kvothe is an interested character, but I’m not sure I’m signing up for the rest of the trilogy unless I hear he’s hired a better editor.
And we just finished the first of many. Hunter S. Thompson, 7/18/37 – 2/20/2005.
I posted this before, the day after he died (this site is old, yo), but it’s worth reading again. For my money, it’s one of his best passages; it generally surprises folks when I tell them what book it’s from:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history,” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what’s actually happened. My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L.L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder’s jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was. No doubt at all about that . . . There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle — that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave . . . So now, less than five years later, you can go up a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eye you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
I actually bought The Shining Girls last year, but for some reason my initial sampling of it didn’t hook me, so I put it aside and forgot about it until the JoCo Cruise this year when something else (which I won’t name) proved too awful to continue. Since I was on a boat in the middle of the ocean, my options were limited to what I had on the Kindle app of my iPad, and so I took another run at The Shining Girls.
I’m glad I did. It’s not great literature by any stretch, but it’s definitely inventive and definitely well crafted. I don’t want to give too much away — it’s very much an Idea book — but the gist is that there exists a sociopath who happens upon a house that allows him to travel through time, and that seems to compel him to seek out and viciously kill certain young women. Working against him in this is the inevitable sole surviving victim, who is (sadly, I must admit) also spunky young newspaper intern whose interactions with her superiors are distressingly predictable (see here and here and here, and I’m not sorry for sending you to TVTropes).
Even so, it’s a fun read, and turned out to be just the thing to read on vacation. Give it a spin.
Parker may be dead, but Spenser lives forever. Or, at least, for me he lives until I run out of Spenser novels. This one‘s an early one — the 10th in the series, published thirty-odd years ago. All the right elements are there, though, and even though it’s quite a bit more by-the-numbers than the later novels, it was still a fun afternoon read. How do you NOT love a detective novel named from a Yeats poem?
Special extra bonus points to Mrs Heathen for finding me this first edition in a used book shop a while back!
I should just come right out and say that I’m a David Mitchell fan. Having enforced downtime is great for some things, and one of those is reading serious books; Mitchell qualifies.
The Bone Clocks is a tremendous joy, but if I’m honest I also admit that it’s got its flaws. Possibly chief among them is that the warring factions here — without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the key conflict is between two groups of differently-immortal people who are, of course, on the down low — are each retreads of similar ideas from books I read previously.
The good guys here are very similar to the eponymous group from The Incrementalists, whereas our bad guys are even MORE similar to Doctor Sleep‘s True Knot. I’m not saying Mitchell cribbed either, but the resonance is too huge to ignore, and I found it a little offputting.
That said, the book is still really delightful for at least 2/3 of its volume. Mitchell delights in clockwork-clever asides and references (to his own work as well as popular culture and other writers’ works), and they’re out in force here, but subtly enough that they don’t detract. His plots, too, can be so intricately planned as to make a mystery writer weep, and that, too, is a delight — the final reveals here are really stupendous without being cheap. But he still kinda whiffs the last quarter of the book, in my opinion.
Also troublesome to me is his return to what is by now a pretty well-worn near-future trope: broad economic collapse based on climate change and drastic shifts in geopolitical power. I understand why this idea is compelling to some people — it’s part of our global anxiety about the future — but it’s hard to do without feeling preachy. Mitchell fails that test here, I’m afraid, and so that segment ends up being kind of a slog.
Fortunately, the book has many segments, taking place in many time periods, all generally touching on the same people at different points in their lives, and they work together to tell the story. Mitchell is kind of obsessed with time and long-form plots; if you take Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas together, you get the idea he’s working towards becoming a sort of paranormal Centennial-era James Michener, and I don’t mean that as a slight. Telling an epic story is a great goal, even if this time around Mitchell fails to meet the mark he previously set with Cloud Atlas.
What started as a “ripping good yarn” a few years ago is getting a bit ploddy. It’s hard to say much about this without disclosing spoilers for the first three books, so I’ll be vague, but if you like hard SF and you enjoyed the first couple, this one’s mostly more of the same, though we get WAY less “crazy alien stuff” and way more “pioneer politics.” I’m not sure this is really an improvement.
Anyway, the “good yarn” aspects have been enough to get The Expanse a shot at TV over on SyFy, but I really have no idea how it’ll translate, or how true to books they’ll be. It’s clear now that Corey (a pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is pursuing this as an open-ended series and not a single long story, and that makes me less interested in hanging on forever. Stories need ends.
I guess that, if we’re going to have categories, I have to tag this as SF, but it’s the closest-to-now and absolutely most-plausible SF I think I’ve ever seen, and not in the “20 minutes into the future” sense that you sometimes got with cyberpunk. The Martian is basically set in the present day, with only our space program’s abilities slightly ramped up.
Astronaut Mark Watney is part of a Mars expedition that works more or less like you’d expect: a long trip there followed by a fairly short sojourn on the surface doing experiments and gathering samples. When a sandstorm kicks up and threatens the stability of their lander — i.e., their only way back to orbit and their ride home — they must abort, but poor Mark is injured on the run to the craft. Worse, the flying debris that knocks him out also destroyed his suit’s telemetry equipment, so all his colleagues think he’s dead. Safe on the lander, and thinking him lost, they leave.
And then Mark wakes up, alone and marooned, and with no way to communicate with Earth or his colleagues.
What follows is a terrific yarn equal parts accessible, scientifically valid problem solving and “Robinson Crusoe”, minus the charming natives. Essentially everything Mark does is plausible, which makes the story all the more thrilling and fun. It should therefore come as no surprise that it’s already been optioned; it’ll be adapted by Drew Goddard (who directed The Cabin in the Woods from a Whedon script) and helmed by Ridley Scott, with Matt Damon attached as Watney.
Scott’s output lately has been weak, but the source material here is so strong my hope is he’s able to find his feet again. The emphasis here on real approaches to problem solving prompted me to describe The Martian to a friend as “like Gravity, but good;” on film, that could become literally true.
John Hodgman told me to read this.
Well, not directly. But he trumpeted its appeal from his blog, which I read, and so it made it onto my list. Shopping for Christmas presents last month, I slipped a copy into my pile as I’ve recently acquired rather more free time. (Ha, ha.) I read it over the last few days.
It’s solid work. It’s technically Darnielle‘s first novel — he’s mostly famous for being the principal behind the band Mountain Goats — but it turns out his 33 ⅓ book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality is rather more than a critical appraisal of the record:
Mr. Darnielle’s publisher is pitching “Wolf in White Van” (the title is a reference to some spooky song lyrics) as a debut novel. But there’s a case to made — I’m willing to make it — that his Black Sabbath book is Mr. Darnielle’s real first novel.
“Master of Reality” is no straightforward critical assessment of Black Sabbath’s album, a sludgy doom-rock classic. It’s fiction that peels thrillingly off into music writing.
The book is written from the point of view of a teenage boy in a mental hospital who explains why Black Sabbath and its lead singer, Ozzy Osbourne, meant so much to isolated kids like himself. It’s about how rock music can express not only liberating joy but, conversely and perhaps more importantly, also speak to bottomless misery and pain.
And then, here we are with Wolf, which is also centered on an obsessed, nerdy, isolated teenage protagonist of a certain type. Heavy metal, fantasy literature and games, and social isolation define Sean, at least until they’re joined by the disfiguring accident that cements his isolation and forms the rest of the skeleton on which the book rests.
Wolf in White Van was nominated for the National Book Award, and it should have been. It’s an intense and powerful book, and (I suspect) a personal one for Darnielle. He clearly didn’t suffer the accident that makes Sean a shut-in, but no amount of research could connect a writer so deeply a life like Sean’s — distant or abusive parents, social isolation, and exacerbating the isolation with unconventional interests like fantasy books, heavy metal, and gaming. The Times notes that Darnielle has written before about his abusive stepfather, and no one writes a 33 ⅓ book about a record they don’t love. Darnielle is clearly of a certain tribe (as am I), and his book is an honest story even if it isn’t wholly his. But that’s what fiction is, right?
Every now and then, I get drawn into a “classic” of the SF genre, and get roundly disappointed. This is one of those times.
In SF, there are TONS of people who read nothing else, it seems, and a goodly chunk of the SF world seems to value very different things than I do when it comes to literature.
I want decently drawn characters, prose that doesn’t clang, an author who understands that telling is not showing, and a story that moves along without getting bogged down in side issues.
In SF, it seems like all these things are subordinate to the cleverness of the idea or ideas the author includes in the yarn. Now, SF is very different from conventional stories because of this fantastic element, but I’ll go ahead and say out loud that the fantastic element isn’t enough to stand on its own, and authors depend on them at their peril.
Of course, as established above, I appear to be alone in this, because A Fire Upon The Deep is widely heralded as a brilliant book. It won the Hugo in 1993, even. So there’s that.
The story here is really pretty thin, and depends entirely on you being sufficiently entertained by a few plot coupons:
- The far, far, far future setting, wherein humans are just one race of thousands, including machine intelligences and “post-singularity” races.
- The whole idea of the “Zones of Thought” in the galaxy, which underpins a series of books starting here. Vinge’s notion is that the galaxy is comprised of concentric zones, and these zones control physical laws at a very basic level. Very close to the galactic core, intelligence is impossible, and travel doubly so. Outside that is the Slow Zone, which is where Earth is, and where the physical laws we know prevail. The next layer is the “Beyond,” where standard SF tropes like faster-than-light travel and communication are possible. And, of course, there’s zones beyond that.
- That the galaxy can contain many types of intelligences, and that they may be very different from us. This in and of itself isn’t new, but two of Vinge’s examples are genuinely novel: the Skroderiders, and in particular the Tines.
The Tines are neat, I must admit: the race is made up of smallish fairly intelligent doglike quadrupeds, but there within the race individual animals are not considered entities. Instead, small packs — 3 to 8 — combine to become intelligent, named individuals. There are strengths and weaknesses to this approach, and to the various sizes of packs. Vinge has given lots of thought to this, which is to his credit, but he did so at the expense of telling an interesting story.
I’ve seen this happen in workshop stories. People fall in love with a plot idea or trope or sequence, and can’t let it go so they beat the horse to death. Vinge does this constantly. The book drags and drags as he explains in painful detail about how a pack race would work, or how a synthetic human feels, or how the Zones affect commerce and history. The issue here isn’t JUST too much backstory (though that’s part of it); the bigger sin is that he just TELLS us these things instead of working their implications into the story organically.
Compare Iain Banks’ Culture stories, for example. Banks has created world no less foreign and amazing than the Zones galaxy, but he’s a deft enough writer that you never feel like you’re getting a braindump from Basil Exposition. I’ve left Banks behind for other reasons, but whatever else turned me off about his books at least the man understood how to construct a good story that also included amazing and fantastic elements.
Yeah, well, I’m behind:
- #21: The Getaway God, by Richard Kadrey: Big fun, and closes out the first major arc for Kadrey’s Sandman Slim character.
- #22: The Ways of the Dead, by Neely Tucker: Solid thriller debut from a friend of a friend.
- #23: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: End-of-the-world tale (plague subtype), sorta, but as much about life years after as it is about life during, which makes it more interesting than most such tales. It’s solid work, but I absolutely will ding her for a few clangy bits, most notably her apparent need to remind us, over and over, that gasoline has a short, finite shelf life. It felt like she’d learned this, had it surprise her, and then felt the need to work it into the text as many times as possible. Which is weird, right?
- #24: Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon. Basically, I took another run at it because the movie is almost here. I think my takeaway is that Pynchon is for other people. Each sentence has a high chance of being an intricate and clever thing of beauty, but it seems he gets distracted building those things and forgets to complete the story.
- #25: Personal, by Lee Child. Sue me; I’ve been laid up. At this point, I must confess that I’m completely caught up on Reacher.
- #26: The Peripheral, by William Gibson. Probably the best and most interesting book I read last year. But it’s Gibson, so this isn’t a surprise. I might get around to writing more about this later, but who can tell?
I finished the Gibson on the 11th, and just finished another book yesterday — but the timing suggests a 27th book for 2014, since I didn’t buy yesterday’s book until the 21st. However, I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it was. Clearly, it was memorable.
This is absurdly spot on, and you should read it. You don’t need to have read the book first; it includes all the context you need.
How To Tell If You’re in a MFA Workshop Story is just a leetle close to my academic roots. It is, of course, hilarious.
That category, wherein I read nearly everything they write? Yeah, Scalzi’s in there. Just read it, for Christ’s sake. It’s a near-future murder mystery. What’s not to like?
Look, even if it’s not as much of a complete and perfect delight as The Gone Away World, how can you NOT love Harkaway’s language?
“If you just go out in the river and stand there long enough, you end up with a fish in your pangs and everyone thinks you’re a genius.”
Indeed. And then, there’s this:
“The last d ays are no less important than the others juyst because they are near to the end. Should we stop living today jsut because death is no longer a stranger?”
Tigerman is more or less straight fiction, and in that is a departure form the more SF/fantasy romp that was GAW, but it’s no less worth your time. The central story here is of a British functionary assigned to be the last official overseeing UK interests on a tiny (fictional) island that is, unfortunately, completely doomed. Things are actively falling apart, and the events of the story take place against a very real backdrop of impending doom, if not for the characters then for the island itself (hence that second quote).
Again, I’m running out of year here, or I’d say more, but the bottom line is that Harkaway is fast becoming the sort of writer I want to read all of.
Remember last year, when I read The Big Sleep? Yeah, more of the same — brilliant work, now seen as cliche, that was being invented at the time.
I’m terribly far behind on these posts, so the next few will be given the short shrift, but trust me when I say sampling the noir classics is worth your time.
What’s more awesome: that a book called Crabs: The Human Sacrifice exist, or that it’s part of a series involving the plots and villainy of sentient crabs?
As noted by one of the Tumblr commenters, I really, really want to know what sort of childhood beach trauma lies at the root of the author’s crab fear.
A World of Trouble concludes perhaps the most melancholy detective trilogy ever: as documented previously in the first volume (The Last Policeman, which was also the first book of 2013) and its followup (Countdown City, also last year), the world of Detective Hank Palace is about to come to an end. This is not a metaphor: a world-ending object is on a collision course with the earth, and its impact will probably kill everyone.
Instead of telling a big-hero story, or a big-science story, though, Winters does something completely novel: he focuses on the life of his protagonist and those around him as the world slowly comes apart over the course of the year. This final volume’s ending is no secret, given the setup, but getting there is where the story really lives.
It’s hard to discuss the third book in a trilogy without spoiling anything, so I won’t beyond saying the books are generally worth your time. I think my favorite is still the first one, which establishes Palace’s world, but the followups are rewarding in their own right even as the world gets bleaker and bleaker.
Finished 23 July
I’ll be brief: LeCarre is clearly not pleased with what passes for intelligence work in the post-9/11 world. Here, he paints a picture of barely functional agencies pursuing someone who is almost certainly NOT a terrorist. I won’t bother with the film, but Hoffman is perfect for the character he plays.
(Finished July 30; I’m stupid behind on these posts.)
By now, everyone knows the name Edward Snowden, and what he did, and what he gave up to do what he did — and what challenges he may still face if the US government ever gets their hands on him. But do yourself a favor and read this book, because you really don’t know the whole story, and you really — still — have no idea how egregious the NSA’s behavior has been.
No Place to Hide is equal parts expose and thriller; the initial chapters detail how Greenwald was contacted by Snowden, and the tradecraft he had to learn in order to communicate with him. Snowden was very, very careful, and for good reason: as we’ve seen, his disclosures have been pretty explosive.
The second part of the story is Greenwald’s analysis of what’s been released so far: explaining the absurd, illegal, unconstitutional overreach of the surveillance in terms anyone can understand (and therefore be outraged by). These programs are ongoing, and are likely to remain issues in campaigns for some time to come, but we wouldn’t even know about them if it weren’t for Snowden.
The intelligence community is, obviously, totally bananas for all these programs, and why wouldn’t they be — it’s a spy’s wet dream to have access to this kind of data. But letting intelligence operatives decide where the line between “reasonable surveillance” and “criminally dangerous big brother shit” is a recipe for disaster.
Greenwald also gives us a pretty exhaustive history of surveillance, including a discussion of the effect this kind of “total information awareness” has on free (and not-so-free) societies. (Hint: it’s not good.)
Of course, the NSA isn’t acting in a vacuum here; there’s been a general failure of the press to act as a real check on government for a long, long time. Today, they so love their access that they’re completely unwilling to call out lies and bullshit. It’s much safer to regurgitate press releases without challenging anything. N.B. that it’s absolutely, unequivocally true that the Times knew about the wiretapping in 2004, before the election, and failed to tell anyone; something this explosive could have easily changed the election results.
But this is where we are: we have a powerful and craven intelligence (and law enforcement) community that views even dissent as unAmerican and dangerous even in the absence of actual wrongdoing or lawbreaking. This leads to a malignant expansion of state power, and cries out for someone to say something and at least begin the conversation in public about how much we’ll put up with. The press wasn’t doing it. Snowden and Greenwald have, and for that we all owe them a debt.
Herein King succumbs to the decades-old temptation to answer the question “Whatever happened to Danny Torrence after the end of The Shining?”
Danny, as most everyone knows, escaped the Overlook Hotel with the help of Scatman Crothers and Olive Oyl, but as the book and film end (slightly differently) young Danny is still a child — and a child with some nontrivial baggage, too. He’s watched his father descend into madness and try to kill them before dying himself in a doomed and haunted hotel, and that’s completely aside from the other complicating factor: the Shining itself, which is what old Dick Hallorann called Danny’s special abilities. He’d seen that before, you see, which established way back then that Danny wasn’t alone in this gift.
So it’s a good question: what DOES happen to Danny? Doctor Sleep answers that for us, and I wish it were a better answer. By this I don’t mean that King dooms his hero — and disclosing that he doesn’t isn’t much of a spoiler, I don’t believe — but that the story detailing Danny’s later life isn’t as good as I wanted it to be. Everybody wants theirs to be Godfather II, but sometimes you end up with Godfather III instead.
The Stephen King who wrote The Shining is a very different man than the grandfatherly giant of American letters who penned Doctor Sleep, and it shows. The central horror of the earlier novel (as distinct from the Kubrick film) isn’t Jack Nicholson going nuts; it’s being inside the elder Torrence’s head as he loses his grip on reality, sobriety, and his own soul thanks to the evil and supernatural influences of the Overlook. Jack Torrence is a man with a drinking problem, and a man with other untreated issues (rage, impulse control, a chip on his shoulder), but not an irredeemable man, and certainly not a killer or true villain. On paper — as opposed to celluloid — Jack is as much a victim of the Overlook as anyone else; moreso, since he dies there while Dick, Wendy, and Danny escape. What I said in December stands, still: “The horror of the film is being trapped in a haunted hotel with a lunatic. The horror of the book is becoming the lunatic.”
This horror, we might guess, stems from the by-now well documented issues that King himself has had with alcohol and substance abuse, and his own horrors regarding mistreating his family and those around him. Jack takes the job at the Overlook precisely to put himself in a place where he CANNOT DRINK, remember; there’s no booze stored there during the offseason. Despite months of sobriety, he’s still trying to protect himself. And yet, despite these best intentions, the Overlook still claims him.
In Doctor Sleep, it’s no surprise to discover that Danny has inherited his father’s demons, but for a more tactical reason: the booze keeps the Shine away. Booze, a subtextual villain of The Shining, is out in front as a character in Sleep; when we meet Danny, he’s on his way to his own personal bottom well before he encounters the real bad guys of the story. That the arc also describes his recovery — complete with AA scenes and sponsors — is therefore not surprising.
But this isn’t the weak part of the story; King does this well, and like most of his stories he does a fine job of putting you in Danny’s skin as he wrestles with his alcoholism and the demands placed on him by the Shining. The weak part is the “by the numbers” tribe of King-baddies (“the True Knot”) haphazardly linked into the
growing metastasizing continuity of the Greater King Universe. Yes, they’re awful. Yes, they torture and eat children. Yadda yadda yadda. It’s a little by the numbers, and I wanted more here. The earlier book’s strength stems from the fear that you could become the villain, under the right circumstances; here’s they’re just a supernatural Other to be battled and defeated, which is fundamentally less interesting than Danny’s own struggle with sobriety and the sort of “real life” he’s been avoiding for, at this point, decades.
The other weakness, and it’s one I’ve dinged King for previously, is length. You’d think they were paying him by the pound. I have no issue with a long story, but I want there to be enough story to justify the page count, and here (as with 11/22/63, though this is a much better book) there just isn’t. I mean, you rip through it quickly — King remains almost compulsively readable — but the story is thin when stretched out this far.
(By way of footnote, King also ends up repeating something that clanged loudly in the Kennedy book: (Highlight with mouse to read)Of course, when our hero succeeds in saving Kennedy, he returns home to an awful distopia because something something butterfly effect — a story trope that has been done absolutely TO DEATH in SF already, and which King should’ve stayed away from instead of telegraphing for hundreds of pages. Here, what ultimately helps Danny take down the bad guys — metahumans who feed on children who Shine — is the fucking measles. Herbie Wells called, Steve; he wants his deus ex machina back.)
This week: At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft.