Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gravity's Rainbow

"A Screaming comes across the sky..."
- First line

- Richard M. Nixon

           It has been an age that I have been locked in mortal combat with this book. I first discovered it when my dad told me about it, and that if I could read it and understand it, I would be able to prove myself in most intellectual arenas against people who do the New York Times crossword in pen. Because he spoke so highly of the book, I took it out of the library one summer in my precocious youth and sat down on the back porch (because in those days we still had a back porch, before sad and upsetting circumstances forced us to do without) and began to read.

           Moments later, and about fifty pages in, I stopped and went, "Why this is simply a World War II novel written in dense and confusing language!" And closed the book, resolving never to pick it up again. This, combined with my earlier attempts to read V. at the local public pool (an attempt which may have been sadly colored by sitting in gum as I read at the local public pool), convinced me Thomas Pynchon was a complete waste of time. I believed I'd tried, seen through him, and that was all there was to it. I didn't need to read any more. I didn't need to know any more. I could safely write him off and never have to read any more ever again. 

               Except...then, on the advice of the usually sage and slightly whacked Steve Jackson Games, who listed The Crying of Lot 49 in their influences in the back of the manual for Illuminati*, I checked out Lot 49, and it was amazing. I still didn't think I was ready for Gravity's Rainbow, and maybe it was just the time that I read it, which was around the same time I'd read Naked Lunch and several other books of conspiracy lit written on drugs, but it was enough to make me turn around. I actually tried reading Gravity's Rainbow again in 2011, but sadly between looming overdue fees and the schedule for my then-budding book blog, I was unable to actually get very far. 

               But finally, after years of false starts and bizarre interruptions, I can finally say that I have read Gravity's Rainbow. And it is one of the greatest, if not the greatest work of American literature, and an all-time favorite of mine. While I cannot recommend this book to everyone, I believe that everyone should at least give it a try, as there is literally nothing else like it. It's a huge, dense, bizarre musical comedy-fantasy-science fiction-thriller that in the end is about absolutely everything, while not actually being about absolutely everything. As I have said twice before with books this month, literally the only thing you have to lose is time, so do yourself a favor. At the very least, it'll be interesting. At the most, it might open you up to some interesting thoughts that you may not have had. But either way, all you'll waste is your time.

More, as always, below.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Death Warmed Over

"You can rot in hell!"
"I'd prefer not to rot anywhere."
- Straight Edge member and Dan Chambeaux
     I have something of a checkered history with the books of Kevin J. Anderson. He first appeared on my radar with his New Jedi Academy trilogy of Star Wars books, a series of books that, while competently written enough, were incredibly silly and involved a new superweapon called the Sun Crusher. New Jedi Academy was, perhaps, not the weapons-grade atrocity that R.A. Salvatore and Michael Stackpole would later unleash unto the expanded universe, but Anderson's book is full of weird narrative choices and introducing a new character who winds up riding the Sun Crusher around and declaring open war on the remainder of the Empire, all of which gives one pause. His other major track record, also focused on ruining my teenage years, is the expanded Dune series, an expansion of a series that should have stopped at book one, maybe book two the first time. In short, recoiling at his name and finding a nice Stephen Hunt book to curl up in has always seemed like the best option. 

                                But, as I have said repeatedly, the only thing you have to lose when you pick up a book-- even by an author you don't like-- is the time you spend reading it*. So when my dad handed me a copy of Death Warmed Over, the first entry in Kevin J. Anderson's Dan Shamble, Zombie PI series, at first I looked upon it with mild apprehension, but then decided to give it a shot. After all, I had nothing to lose, and it would either give me another gleefully dissenting review, or a surprising success to write for all of you guys. And I was at least interested in the novel, considering it started out with the hero being stalked by a werewolf hitman so he could rescue a kitschy painting of zombie dogs for a ghost who seems modeled slightly off of Andy Warhol.

And, well, guys, I think it's "Caius Admits He's Wrong" month. Because while no one would ever think that Death Warmed Over is great literature, it's a tremendously fun read, and if this is what Kevin J. Anderson wants to do with himself, then I welcome it with open arms and I'll admit that I might be wrong about him being as horrible as the other expanded universe authors I mentioned above. It's a delightful, light book that reminds me of law-procedural dramedies, only with a heavily supernatural twist. And it's a great summer read, if nothing else.

More, as always, below. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dreams and Shadows

"You always assume we must have fallen, that we were thrown out of heaven. Some of us just jumped."
- Bertrand
                       I admit that going into this book, I didn't have a lot of high hopes. It was recommended to me by sources who also really dug perennial Geek Rage/Strange Library whipping boy The Magicians*; the writer's bio points out that he wrote the screenplay for Sinister, a film with an awesome premise and not a whole lot else going on; and the sources I used to look up the book had a lot to say about its rich setting and not much to say about the plot or the characters. Everything about Dreams and Shadows sent up a red flag that, after being burned on such "classics" of modern literature as City of Dark Magic, The Night Circus** and (again) The Magicians among others, made me hesitate to pick it up and give it a read. 

                                   So I went with my gut, and turned it aside. I read other things. I tried time and again to batter through the literary Great Wall that is Gravity's Rainbow. I read an interesting biography of National Lampoon. But finally, when I saw a sequel had come out to Dreams and Shadows, and said sequel was on the shelf at the local library, and it seemed like it was actually a series worth reading. "Okay," said I, "We'll give this Cargill guy a proper shot, then." And while I could not get Queen of the Dark Things because the new books section at my libraries exist solely to taunt me with the option of books I cannot check out due to living so impossibly far away from the libraries that even if I were allowed I could not check them out, they did have a copy of Dreams and Shadows. I'd done it. I'd decided to go against my gut in the service of possibly picking up something that was at least in part still part of the zeitgeist. 

                                      My lesson for you today is this: DO NOT trust your fucking gut. Because your gut is good, but when you have nothing to risk but time and another book you have to read because it's due back to the library, you can't afford not to take a chance on a book. And while you may be dragged through your Catherynne M. Valentes, your Max Freis, your Lev Grossmans and the like, there's a chance you're passing up a heartbreaking work, a work that could damn well be a favorite. Read everything and discard the stuff you didn't like as much, because that's how your taste stays killer. But never tell yourself "I won't like this book", because screw you, you have no freaking clue whether you'll like it or not until you try. Experimentation. Discovery. Risk. It's what makes life fun.

                                      And Dreams and Shadows is the perfect argument for why not to do this. It's a beautiful book, packed full of characters and setting and interesting dialogue and some odd interludes about anthropology and existentialism. While you may not enjoy it as much as I did, C. Robert Cargill's first novel is a book that does not simply grab your attention, but then shakes it back and forth while shouting at it. I need to buy this. I'm surprised I haven't yet. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Long Books Month 2

                   Hi, guys. 

                   Since the spring started, I've been having trouble. Part of this is because I've been sick, and busy, and at cons, and running around trying to find a job so I can make money and continue to make this blog. Part of this is simply because I've been trying to fit meaty, dense, long books in on a deadline of one per week. 

                    So since I'm having difficulty, rather than continue to punish myself and you, I've decided that perhaps I'm going to do what I did back in November and have another Month of Long Books. During this month, I'm going to just read. Some of what I review will make it here. Some of it won't. Some of it is just stuff I've wanted to devote my full attention to and haven't had the chance.

                     Starting on Saturday and going for a month, I'm gonna be reading. And when the subjects come to me, I may write up a bunch of stuff. So I'll see you all in July when I get back, and I'm looking forward to seeing you all then


Minifiction Reviews: The Night Whiskey


           I've had a lot of trouble with Jeffrey Ford in the past. I think part of it was his writing style. The best way I can describe his writing is "doom-laden, melancholic magical-realism" which is just using a lot of stupid labels to say this: The man writes dark. In fact, because of the strange surrealist-painting quality of his work, it's actually easy to mistake his work for a lighter work, only to suddenly realize you've made a terrible mistake. But, for whatever reason, I've never been able to get into Jeffrey Ford. And, given that every time I talk about him people go "...who?" and finding a copy of his fiction debut The Physiognomy is like trying to find a sewing needle in a haystack used as a stash by heroin junkies, not many other people have, either. I get the impression Ford is a "writer's writer", someone who writes their books and is lauded by all the 'heads in the know, but doesn't see nearly as much mainstream recognition. Similar to Ford in this aspect is another fantastic short story writer, Kelly Link, whom I cannot recommend enough, but who does not seem to get read half as much as she should.

                   Getting back to the subject of Jeffrey Ford, though, I recently picked up a collection of his, The Drowned Life. I didn't quite know what to expect from the collection, I'd just picked it up because I'd gotten the itch for Ford's work lately, having forgotten my previous attempts to read The Shadow Year (six of those), and The Physiognomy (two, maybe three). And, as luck would have it, my library had The Drowned Life and The Girl in the Glass right there on the shelf. So I picked them both up and took them home. Because I didn't feel like reading any of the things I'd taken out of the library right away, I sat down and started looking through The Drowned Life. Three stories later, I was hooked.

                     But while all the stories in The Drowned Life are good, one stands out above all the rest, and that one is "The Night Whiskey". Seriously, I recommend the book as a buy just for this story and "Ariadne's Mother" alone. Why? Well, read on...

Monday, June 2, 2014

Insane City

"And then everybody got arrested."  

        I've been struggling a little with this review, and I couldn't figure out why. Insane City is a book that's a lot of fun, the dialogue is great, though it's beyond loose, and the characters are colorful and exist in more than one dimension, which is rare in certain genres these days. And it's by Dave Barry, one of my favorite authors and one of the few people in the Florida crime genre not to have fallen into the rut of formulaic writing. But trying to quantify the book got harder and harder, and every time I looked at what I'd written, I just got more and more pissed off. And finally, something clicked and locked into place earlier this morning, something that finally made everything make perfect sense:

       I couldn't review the book the way I did every other book for one fundamental reason: There's not actually much there to review. Which isn't to say that there isn't a book there, there's definitely a book, but there isn't actually too much to it. It's a series of vignettes and character sketches that eventually coalesce into a beautiful chase sequence at the end of the novel, but I just can't dissect this one the way I usually do. How do you pick apart a book that works well as a whole, but falls apart under closer scrutiny? 

        Well, you don't, obviously, because the whole thing falls apart that way. The entire insane mess whirls around these characters and scenes, never slowing down.  When it finally reaches its ending and collapses, exhausted, on the ground for the epilogue, then you're left with the feeling that you've read something enjoyable. Lacking in substance, full of snarky asides to issues with Florida, and with the usual complaints about twenty-first century air travel, but definitely enjoyable.

But if I just ended the review there, you guys would feel cheated. Well-- since this is two days behind deadline, more cheated than you already are*. 

So, as I attempt to make some sense of this...

More, as always, below.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ready Player One

 "I'm seeing flying ostriches now in my sleep!"

     The most important film critic of our generation, a Mr. Roger Ebert, once said that when he reviewed movies, he tried to look at each film from a specific viewpoint. He said the first thing he would always do is ask "Who is this movie for?" That he couldn't review a movie until he knew who the filmmaker was trying to reach, and that he would then work forward from there and review the movie on the merits it had from that perspective.

                  I have had my mild disagreements with Mr. Ebert in the past, but I'm reminded of Lewis Carroll's maxim about the broken clock being right at least twice a day. And in this statement, he outlines something kind of important to remember about criticism. Especially with Ready Player One. You see, Ernest Cline is pretty clearly writing for a specific audience with this book. And if you're not in the specific audience, well, it can kind of get annoying when the unending spiel of anime, TV, movie, and music references fills up the page like brand names in American Psycho...though perhaps that might be the point, a self-reflective look at "geek culture" and internet culture and all of the numerous things that go along with that. It's hard to exactly say whether it's a culture-geek power fantasy, or making fun of it, but if it's as earnest as it seems in the book, I hope Mr. Cline got all the pop-culture references out of his bloodstream before he decides to write another one. 

              That isn't to say it's a bad book. Cline knows his way around a sentence, clearly, and he has some sequences that definitely work. While it's a deeply flawed book, it's an amazing first novel and when Cline works all the kinks out of his writing, I'd definitely like to read more of what he wrote. And I admit that there were some moments that definitely surprised me. And, at its core, it's got a really human message about growing up and learning to live in the world, or at least to make a place somewhere for yourself and your friends and your loved ones. But in the end, the sheer crushing weight of pop-culture eventually drowns out any message or heart or humanity the book has in its noise which, satirical or not, is still noise. And while at times it's worth the slog, most of the time it isn't really.

But how can it be all those things? Well, read on...