Thursday, March 19, 2015

Don't Touch That Dial

#27 – The Running Man – Richard Bachman
Recommended by: PG-R

I used to love Stephen King. As a young teenager, his books absolutely scared the ever loving shit out of me. I can well remember calling down to my dad to turn on the light in the hallway because I was too terrified to walk out into the semi-darkness and do it myself – and the switch was probably only two steps away. Pennywise the Clown from IT and the vampires in ‘Salems Lot and just about everything about The Shining, etc., were all seminal reading moments in my early years. Uncle Stevie knew just how to hit all the right notes. His monsters were real because they were right outside your window. When it’s foggy out, I think of King. Shudder. Then I read Gerald’s Game and my love affair abruptly came to an end. It might just be the worst book I have ever read and I’ve read all four Twilight books. I went off Stephen King and I don’t think I’ve read any of his books since. I came back to admiring the man, if not the writing, when I got to hear him read the pie-eating contest section out of The Body at Radio City Music Hall. He was wry, and witty, and was well aware that not everything he has ever written was a masterpiece. I had to admire that. His book On Writing should also be required reading for anyone who has ever attempted to put pen to paper.

So, when my darling youngest BIL selected yet another book for me to read (five in total because we had a misunderstanding about the rules), I was pretty excited for this one. I thought I read it ages ago, but it turns out all of my memories are of the 80’s movie, not the book. The central premise – a man desperately in need of money agrees to go on a bloodthirsty game show to save his family – has become almost commonplace now. Many authors have stolen heartily from this book and sadly, I think they’ve done it better. The book doesn’t age well. At all. The homophobia, racism, and extreme violence are bad enough –but the ending, in the post 9/11 world, is almost impossible to read. My spoiler policy prohibits me from going into further detail, but this book is not for the faint of heart and very far indeed from the movie. I’m curious as to how long ago Youngest has read this, and what he would think if he reread it now. It’s not quite what I expected, that’s for sure. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Second Verse, Same as the First

Sir Terry Pratchett died today. I’m too sad to write an intro. The man deserves a eulogy, not a blog post.

#24 – A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
Recommended by: LW

I read this book for the first time in my early 20s. When I was in my early 30s, I was able to attend a reading given by John Irving (with Stephen King and J.K Rowling) at Radio City Music Hall. When he read aloud in Owen Meany’s fractured, broken voice, I got the shivers. Now, in my early 40s, I have read this book again. While I still love it, and would recommend it, I find I have reservations. The first act and the sections detailing the Christmas Pageant are about as good as it gets in terms of writing. But the second act does not hold up as well for me. Also, while I blithely use the term “acts,” I’m really talking about a few hundred pages each. The deft hand of an editor is clearly missing and the older Owen gets the more remote and disagreeable he becomes. The third act feels rushed, with plot holes being filled in with quicksand rather than granite. I also don’t like that our narrator is nothing more than a prop. John Wheelright is always a bystander, he exists merely to facilitate, encourage, and provide for Owen. He is the most passive character in a book filled with passive characters. Everyone and everything in the book revolves around Owen and while all of the characters are well written, they aren’t given much to do. A Prayer for Owen Meany is complicated and my feelings about it are just as complicated. It is about the belief in God, in war, and in miracles. Various characters grapple with that in many different ways, and I’m not sure how I feel about all of it. Maybe when I read it again in 10 years, I’ll have a better understanding.

#25 – A Dirty Job – Christopher Moore
Recommended by: PGR

I’m on the record in regard to Christopher Moore novels. The more of them I read, the less of them I like. In theory, I should love him. He takes Shakespeare, adds humor, and puts a modern spin on them. In practice, though, I find him infantile and ridiculous. Fool had the bones of a really great retelling of King Lear, but it was overly sexual in a way that was just flat out unfunny. And I read 50 Shades, so I know all about unfunny sex. I had the same problem with The Serpent of Venice. It could have been so much better. This book, about those that help Death collect souls, was actually much better the second time around. I had lowered my expectations quite a bit, and as such, wasn’t disappointed. (How’s that for damning with faint praise!) I was able to read it for exactly what it is, a comic take on death with some laugh out loud funny bits and a rushed ending. This book was helped, quite a lot, by the inclusion of my absolute favorite character of all time – the Emperor of San Francisco. The real-life Emperor Norton spent years wandering the streets of San Francisco making proclamations and being insane, but he was well loved and well taken care of by the citizens of the city. I had forgotten a fictionalized version of the Emperor was in this book and my delight in finding him once earned this book a full letter grade more than it deserved.

#26 – Lamb – Christopher Moore
Recommended by: PGR

This book is exactly what I mean about Christopher Moore – there was so much potential, but so little good writing. A satiric look at the missing years in the life of Christ, as told by his friend Biff (which is the noise that is made when one is smacked in the head) could have, would have, should have been so many things – but wasn’t really anything. It was just dumb. The only and I mean the ONLY part I liked was the second to last line in the book where the middle name of Jesus H. Christ is finally revealed. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Dirty Job

This week was only marginally less crazy than last week. One broken car, two snow days, one delay, one kid who fell down the stairs, and all the usual inanities of life made life, well, life. But it didn't leave a whole lot of time for reading. Ah well. 

#23 -The Book Thief  - Marcus Zusak
Recommended by: LW

What do you picture when you think about death? Or, more importantly, whom do you picture? Is Death a goth girl with an ankh and an umbrella? Does Death wear a hooded robe and carry a scythe? Would he kill for a curry? Does Death have a sense of humor or reason? My favorite Death is Neil Gaiman’s version (no surprise there) and the reason why is the following quote:

“You get what anybody gets. You get a lifetime.”

The Book Thief has its own version of Death, a little wry, a little sad, and a little overwhelmed. Being Death during the Holocaust was quite a job.

“It was a year for the ages, like 79, like 1346, to name just a few. Forget the scythe, Goddamn it, I needed a broom or a mop. And I needed a vacation.”

If the whole book had been written in Death’s tone of voice, using Death’s point of view, I would have been happy. Unfortunately, I found the entire book to be choppy, with no flow. Just when it started to have a solid rhythm, Death would interrupt, or move the story in a different direction. As a storytelling device, that drove me nuts. Would you like to know what also drove me nuts? The number of times the title of the book was used. Often, book titles are practically irrelevant. They are a suggestion of what is to come. They can be very specific, such as with The Happiness Project or they can be ostentatious, as with The Boy Who Said No. The best ones are beautiful and sum up the story in a way that the reader will understand only after the book is complete, such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or The House of Sand and Fog. But they shouldn’t be repeated on practically every page so the author can show just how clever he (thinks) he is.

This is one of those books that makes all the bestseller lists, and is optioned for a movie before it even gets published. I can see why it would – the tale of a girl whose love of books saves her life in Nazi Germany – is a good sell. And I love that so many books that have been recommended to me are about people who love books. It’s a really neat through line to my project as a whole. But I could not get past the way the book was written. For me, what could have been great was merely good.