Sunday, February 26, 2012

Resolution Update #6.

The 100-pages-per-day deathmatch continues. Two months now without fail. It begins to play upon the mind, particularly the rate of coincidence, one book to another. Just today, two books the main characters of which enjoy eating raw potatoes in place of the more expensive apple. I'll just assume the later author read the earlier's work and it either stuck in his head or (as I would claim) it was the world's most subtle homage. On with the update.

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote. I get the feeling that Truman Capote was Truman Capote from the moment he was born. To the extent that he can be imagined in elementary school, he must be pictured disdaining the playground whilst coddling a martini. His main character here is just as well-limned at twelve, as is the object of that character's affection. An unrecognized and rare gift here, to write children as people. Not little people— people. With complex problems and everything.

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez. I confess. I liked it. And I liked that I liked it, because this is the sort of book that would have driven me up the wall a couple of decades ago. I liked plain vanilla fiction back then (not that there's anything wrong with that). Here's a book that moves all over in time, switches point of view and even tense mid-sentence, and is written as not only one long paragraph but one long sentence. I suppose commas were necessary or they, too would have been jettisoned. And yet, for all the confusion, it works. Even I could follow it. Go, me.

Deer Park by Norman Mailer. This is Norman Mailer's "I want to go to Hollywood" novel, I will assume. This one ranks rather low amongst the wines and spirits, in my opinion. A collection of Hollywood-hamster-wheel types out in a thinly-disguised Palm Springs, having rather vulgar and dispirited relationships while planning their Next Big Thing. Yawn.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy. If the Scandinavians ever decide that a white American male is worthy of consideration for the Nobel Prize in Literature, I do hope and expect that Cormac McCarthy will be at the top of their nomination list and I shall drink his health when he wins. This is one of those books that had me gnashing my teeth in jealous admiration from the first paragraph, and that's even with a character archetype that usually just makes me gnash my teeth in irritation. Suttree is a wanderer. Don't expect him to point to some goal and march toward it. This is a man who has given up much, and loses more, and lets it slide. But the writing! Oy!

Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson. This one took me by surprise in a very good way. I've read several of Denis Johnson's books. This was a radically different subject than any I'd seen him take on before. Post-apocalyptic Florida. A last zone of life on a ruined Earth. In this book I learned that not only does Johnson have an epic set of writing chops, he has the wisdom to not over-explain. That is usually the kiss of death in this sort of book, when the writer wades in early to tell you what happened before the story began and again late to tell you what the mystery was all about. Not here. Here you get an elegant riddle that lives on after the book. I will not forget these characters any time soon.

Howl by Allen Ginsberg. Okay, so there aren't 100 pages in this book. It got read just the same. The title poem probably irritated the bejaysus out of Ginsberg's parents' generation, and it has the unique capacity to irritate those that come along later, too. Just remember that this was the first generation to write poetry about its alienation and destruction in a setting other than war, or rather to see themselves at war in the home, classroom, workplace, everywhere. Not the last, of course, so don't get too annoyed with the sense of singular importance they had. For my money, the poem America is worth the price of admission. What a fantastic rant/love letter that poem is. Wonderful.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Resolution Update #5.

On with the actual, physical page-turners whose pages have been turned. One hundred pages a day through:

Clockers by Richard Price. Speaking about creating dodgy characters we genuinely root for even in their misbehaviors, Richard Price is a master. And I don't know how many decades he's spent hanging out with cops, but he has their side of the story down, too. Ferociously paced, filled with real people rather than types, the business language of both sides of the urban street shines through. The only problem with this book is it made me long for gummy bears...

by Harry Mathews. This book grew on me as it went along, but at the end of the day there is a schtick here and it didn't quite win me over. Each chapter is about the relationship between two of a host of characters, and the book covers several decades with these stories out of sequence. All fine and large, but the episodic nature and the time shifts didn't seem to cohere quite enough. Add the sin of having three female characters all with polysyllabic names beginning with "P" and I feel taxed to keep it all in my head. I may re-read it with the stories in sequence and see how it fares.

Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Blame it on my meager familiarity with poetry. Blame it on an unhappy encounter with one of WCW's grocery-list poems in high school. Whatever it is, this doesn't work for me. This is poetry interspersed with letters and bits of the history of Paterson, New Jersey. I seem to be finding a lot of books lately that have Fancy Writer Tricks, and I haven't seen one that works. But then, maybe this is just poetry and I'm a barbarian. Fair enough. But even when a city is named the main character of a book, I'm not going to perk up until it catches fire or runs off with the mailman or Does Something.

An All-Audiobook Update.

Getting hard to keep up the blog pace with the ferocious reading pace. Thus far I have not missed a day of my 100 page New Year's resolution, which is tricky when I'm also doing a major home repair. Tomorrow I expect to have two contractors, an electrician, the tile guy, and the new window guy all in the house, and to finish William Carlos Williams' Paterson. Phew.

Here are some books I've read that don't qualify for the resolution because they are all audiobooks. The good, the bad, and the ugly! Let's start with The Good:

The Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner. How gorgeous is this book? Perhaps it's because the marriage depicted reminded me of my parents, but the writing is what makes this one of the best books ever. The diction, the precision, and the humor are splendid. I shall remember this main character for ever. And voice! Here not only does the writer shine through the words, but the narrator is perfectly matched to the material and wonderful.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. I shall be surprised and delighted if I find a better or equal book this year. Or next year. Yes, it has one of those annoying, editors-love-them-we-don't-know-why titles. Get it anyway. Want a master's course in subtext? In tension? In high-stakes brinksmanship? In making you root for a character, even one who has done some reprehensible things? Heck, just buy this book because you are a reader. If Stanford does not make Adam Johnson a full professor with tenure they are out of their tiny little minds. Every MFA program in the country should be charging hard to his doorstep. A new masterpiece.

The Bad...

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This one got shut off about halfway through, so it doesn't really count as yet. I may restart it out of pure curiosity for the wonderful critical reception it has received. As near as I can tell, 100% of the admiration for this book must be due to the fact that it involves baseball. I don't care anything about baseball, but I am rather fond of a great story, great characters, and great writing, and this book is three strikes and out on those counts. One telling thing about the audiobook is that the narrator has used a rather enervated tone for the main character, which matches him perfectly. A less self-motivated main character has rarely been seen. As I said, I may finish this one, but there'd better be a pony in here somewhere.

The Ugly:

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe. I shut this book off once, but I was out in the car and had nothing else for the long drive home, so on it went again. This is a book so rife with loathsome characters, so filled with peculiar sexual behavior and relationships between the sexes, that it gave me the creeps. And not in a good way. There's an old story about someone admiring Philip Roth'sPortnoy's Complaint, but observing that they would not wish to shake his hand. Well, this was more unsettling. It is not fiction's place to make the reader comfortable, but this book committed the sin that the character's actions felt arbitrary. ***SPOILERS*** This was sealed in the last fifteen minutes of the book, in which the character completely reversed course, became a responsible citizen, shouldered his burdens (which were magically lifted, basically), and went on with his life. I think the writer got as tired of this character as I did.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Resolution Update #4.

Still reading, but falling behind on updating. I've finished three more books, two of which involved iguanas...

Golden Gate by Vikram Seth. This book covers the lives and loves of a group of friends and family in San Francisco in the early 1980s. One of them does, in fact, own a iguana. This book is, unusually, written in verse. Maybe it's the curse of the contemporary reader, but I liked the book more when I read it out of verse. I confess my poetry experience leaves much to be desired. The question you should ask as a writer contemplating an unusual execution is whether the story is big enough to sustain the technique. I'm not sure here.

The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. The reptile fancier here is in trouble for attempting to become an underage-girl fancier. He and his iguana are exiled with other pedophiles and pederasts to life under a causeway in Florida, kept at great remove from all potential victims. A local sociology professor appears and tries interviewing and organizing this community of outcasts, and with the professor the book stumbles. We the readers are told his story down to the last detail, so when a mystery springs up around him there is no mystery for us at all. Never let the air out of your drama before you have to.

The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens. This is a courtroom drama published in 1942, and is a much more modern book than I was expecting. Expert use of the language of the law, the dance of a court case, the turns along the way. Add the realism of life in a small town and you have a non-sugar-coated novel of crime, punishment, and justice. Anyone with an interest in the law should try this book.