Dan Simmons - Drood. I'd been plugging away at this book, some 770 pages plus, since March. I took several breaks, as I snuck in some other, shorter books and spent some time righting wrongs along the Rio Bravo. Drood is a fictionalized rendering of the last five years of Charles Dicken's life, with a lot of fun Victoriana and a supernatural/horror vibe. The book is narrated by (and, as with The Great Gatsby's Nick Carraway, truly "about") Wilkie Collins, author of The Moonstone. There's a boldness in the book, in that Simmons has the moxie to make up stories about an actual great 19th century writer in the voice of a near-great 19th century-writer, playing with both the historical record and the fictional tropes of the modern horror novel and the 19th century social novel. There's a lot to admire in Simmon's use of the manners of the period, in which speakers hide their envy and suspicions and pettiness behind a mask of jovial niceties. I do sort of wish that Simmons had let himself be a little bit freer with the historical record -- there are times when he as author draws the reader to the edge of suspecting Charles Dickens, author of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, of mass murder, only to quickly draw away again. (Similarly, the supernatural aspects of the novel are mostly explained away and excised at the book's end, and one feels that 770 is a long way to go for an ending that more or less boils down to "It was all a dream, a vivid and horrible dream.") Simmons does, though, turn Wilkie Collins into a more fascinating persona than I would have imagined back during Brit Lit coursework. At one point in the reading of this book, I was on the cusp of being led to the works of Dickens and Collins, particularly The Mystery of Edwin Drood and The Pickwick Papers and The Lady in White. Either sadly or not, that impulse ultimately passed, somewhat in the manner of a bit of undigested beef.
Victor LaValle -- Big Machine. This has been on my "To Read" list for quite a while, as it begins with the unlikely premise of a scholarly society of African-Americans living in secret in northern Vermont. LaValle's very funny, and very weird -- things get stranger and stranger as the book goes on. There is an absolutely engaging backstory regarding the narrator's upbringing in a religious cult, itself worth the cost of admission. (The founders of the cult rewrite the Bible, recasting its character and place names with American/African-American equivalents, such that Noah parts the Mississippi, etc. One finds oneself wishing that Bible actually existed.) LaValle, who cops to having been a "weird black kid" with heroes including Fishbone and Phil Lynott in his end-of-book acknowledgements, is included as one of the "20 More Under 40" by the Millions website.
Dan Chaon -- Await Your Reply. As with LaValle's novel, the storyline of Await Your Reply is probably better discovered than reported. Suffice to say, it's a page-turner. I would call it the ultimate in beach reads, except that I read it mostly on front porches or aside swimming pools and I'm therefore not qualified to suggest how it might hold up atop sand. I knew nothing going into this book, had no expectations, and suggest you enter into it the same way.
I'm sure someone somewhere has written a good long essay on the prevalence of orphans in fiction (and in Disney movies), and I hope that essay is of recent enough vintage to consider AYR within its focus.
------Charles Burns -- Black Hole. I've been waiting to read this for awhile, but scared off by the price of a hardcover graphic novel vs. time invested in reading said graphic novel. This is a weird economic argument, I know, and particularly weird given other things I've chosen to spend money on, but for whatever reason I wasn't willing to buy this book for its $29.95 list price because I felt I would burn through its 352 pages in about an hour of reading time. Thankfully, I came across it in the library, and so I was able to read this at state expense. Thanks, taxpayers!
Burns draws wondrously creepy panels, and the story he tells of a body-morphing sexually transmitted disease spreading among the teenagers of the Pacific Northwest in the 1970's is likewise wondrously creepy. It also turns in unexpected ways, playing off ones expectations of high school roles and stereotypical teenage narratives. The good girl is not named queen of the prom in the end, and the well-intentioned stoner nerd does not get his plucky reward.
As someone who spent quite a bit of his adolescence drinking in either the nearby woods or in the vacant lot / treacherously muddy drop-off / patch of sand known to us as "B.A. Beach" just up on Lake Drive or in the BMX dirt trails next to the train tracks above the Milwaukee River and behind the Open Pantry, the gritty locales of Black Hole brought back very visceral memories for me, and Burns exactly translates to the page what Neko Case calls "That Teenage Feeling" of crushes and first kisses.
Sweet, sweet retaliation.
Sam makes pizza.
Caleb and Renatta on wheels.
Sam cruises for chicks.
Caleb on the monkey bars.
Feeding goats with Grandma Glenda.
Caleb finds a friend.
The boys wanted tattoos on their backs. Caleb, like a good biker, asked for an eagle. Sam the ham wanted his name in big letters. He looks so tough in his Elmo underpants.
Dan in California sent this Monsters, Inc. book just in time for Sam's new monster obsession. Bedtime stories used to be required to include both Thomas the Tank Engine and Batman; now, they require Thomas and one to three monsters.
Sam with his mother, some candy, and one of the crabapple blossoms that appear on our tree for one fleeting week each spring.
Caleb eating his all-time favorite food, along with Aidan and Sam, at Granny & Poppa's house.
Wishing Uncle Tim a happy birthday...
And bogarting the candles.
Here's some small thoughts on the books I've read recently, each of these from the Golda Meir Library here on the campus of our mid-sized non-flagship state university:
David Foster Wallace - Consider the Lobster. Just as I'm saving William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee Jerusalem and The Mansion to read when I'm older, having burned through most the rest of his works in my formative years, I feel I should now be reading DFW only sparingly. The essays in Consider the Lobster kind of came on like a weekend spent with a lost friend -- you forgive the excesses and savor what was so fantastic and fresh about the writing. "Authority and American Usage" illustrates in a way that nobody else likely could the connections between clear writing, critical thinking, and democracy. (It almost -- almost -- makes me want to teach English Comp again, just so that I can use and explore that essay with actual English Comp students.) And "Certainly the End of Something Or Other, One Would Sort of Have To Think" pinpoints what's so insufferable about John Updike. It's sad and shocking to think that Wallace (9/12/08) beat Updike (1/27/09) to Dead White Male status.
Another reason to ration what DFW works I've not yet read:1 his style of merging hyper-precise language with the whole inarticulate, ultra-casual, abbreviated jargon thing is super infectious w/r/t one's one writing. (Also a stylistic problem that comes from reading Faulkner.)
1 : Oblivion: Stories, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, the upcoming and unfinished Pale King.
Jack Pendarvis - Awesome. I picked this up straight from the 21st Century literature shelves (ie, I wasn't particularly looking for it or utilizing Dewey Decimals) based on its colorful kid's-booky binding and because Pendarvis is a friend of my local bookstore and folks I like who've worked there. It much improved three or four lunch hours spent in the otherwise and miserable space that pretends to be this university's cafeteria in the summer months.
Awesome concerns a giant (named "Awesome," which I say in place of "the titular giant," which would be twee) who's particularly skilled in building robots. You can take it from there. As Samuel Jackson said of the film titled Snakes On a Plane, "You either want to see that or you don't."
Awesome reads like a novelization of the world's weirdest 64-bit SuperNintendo cartridge, and I mean that in the most complimentary way. The plot involves a quest for improbable items, its dialogue marries the erudite with the down-home, and its general tone is fit for your more fantastical Roald Dahl or Kenneth Grahame child-lit if not for all the preoccupation with ejaculate and emasculated wieners.
Nelson W. Aldritch, Jr., Ed. -- George Being George. It seems to me that George Plimpton had the kind of charmed life that, again like Snakes on a Plane, you're either going to envy or abhor. He was a dilettante, which I'd always understood to be a pejorative until thinking about Plimpton's life as presented here. To do a little bit of everything -- pitch for the Tigers, narrate a Ken Burns documentary, run an influential literary magazine, serve as Commissioner of Fireworks for New York City, host swank parties in your west side apartment, write a few respected books, wrestle a gun out of the hands of an assassin -- seems like the best of all possible modern lives. Luckily, Plimpton had the right kind of ancestral and social-economic background to be able to gain entry to this kind of life, and if you stand back a bit he seems like the perfect poster child for White Privilege, but at least he was polite and humble and good-humored about it all. It's hard not to like the guy, in biography as in life, apparently. (Sadly, no direct mention is made of George's commercials for Intellivision.)
This is an oral biography, assembled in the manner in which Plimpton assembled similar works on Edie Sedgwick and Truman Capote. It strikes me as the perfect kind of biography for Plimpton, both because it accentuates his proclivity for anecdotes and society life, but also because the format allows the editors to cut out all the boring stuff. It's fun, fast, and only a touch gossipy. The 50's Paris and 60's New York the book evokes seem really sort of magical, the kind of places were wandering into a coffee shop at exactly the right time might lead you to a career of editing fiction for a literary magazine. The kind of places where a third glass of scotch might either lead you into a month-long, continent-spanning practical joke or a wrestling match with Norman Mailer.
I've been made aware that the last book I reviewed does not make for good beach reading, as a lengthy description of decapitation can really melt the ice in your Mai Tai. This book, however, really demands to be read on vacation, as far as possible from your actual and ordinary life. You're not going to want to break away from the bit about Plimpton dodging bulls with Hemingway in Madrid in order to switch your whites from the washer to the dryer, which -- lets face it -- is likely one of the more significant things you've done with yourself today.