Friday, August 31, 2012

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

So I did some reading this month.  Seven books!  Whoa!  That's huge for me; particularly the way this year has been going.  It's easy to get through as many books when they are all really good.  I was surprised the most by Three Men in a Boat, and secondly by Gentlemen of the Road, both were good surprises.  I got through Swanwick's collection due to reading one here and there, as opposed to straight through, the fact that he's one of my favorite living authors, and because I had previously read many in this particular collection.  (That said, I didn't skip any of the ones I'd read before.  They were even better the second time around.)  The New York Trilogy was a great big 'ole bunch of 'wow!' and Zafon left me breathless and feeling late to the party.  An all around excellent reading month.  I'll surprise myself in saying I like Chabon's book best of the seven, but in truth all books here get a strong recommendation as being exceedingly awesome: pick the one you'd least think you'd enjoy and then read it and get back to me.  (Herein are the seeds of short story collection vs novel for the sake of awards planted for a future post...)

In terms of reading and quality this month is similar to last year's August; and I'm okay with that.

It was such a strong reading month that, with some faith in getting it done, I'm going to reinstate my monthly reading goals.  This September I'll be getting my introduction to Cory Doctorow, checking out China Mieville, keeping tabs on Zafon, scratching the Simon Mayer itch.  I'll let you guess which books.  All these authors are new to me, and I'm--needless to say--excited about all the books.

In addition to reading, I met a girl this month--a suspect special one--who plays a lot of video games.  As such, she tries to get me to play a lot of video games.  It's not a good look as we are both hyper competitive.  Anyway, be on the lookout for those 'red shells,' that have never made an appearance on this blog.  They have many vagaries and take many shapes...          

I saw two shows this month, both of which were wildly entertaining: Ted Nugent and Stevie Vai.  Yeah, they are both better than me... and while I'd only ever to aspire to be one of the two, I'm glad I went to both.  Truly memorable stuff.  Vai is an absolute beast and considering Nugent's excess energy we don't need nuclear power generators, just a way to syphoning off his excess steam.
Oh, and apropos of nothing: I've got the remedy for all your ails, aches and pains.  Trust me and try it.  One slightly over-ripe guava, three ounces pineapple juice, half an ounce lime juice (or none if you don't like the bite) all well blended.  Then stir in two ounces of rum; The Good Stuff: dark and heavy, full-flavored.  (See this very site for recommendations!)  

Drink.  Relax.  Repeat indefinitely.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon

Here's an oddity; seemingly a book that shouldn't exist, something the author nearly admits in the afterword.  The subtitle on the cover reads, 'A Tale of Adventure' it's a very apt title but one that flies in the face of what I had taken as modern publishing PR protocol.  Usually when one such as Chabon publishes anything that isn't explicitly the most high and mighty 'literary fiction' we always see 'A Novel' as a subtitle on the cover, as if to ensure the reading elite that 'even though this work may have shades of genre writing; it's still really good.'  Sadder than the implied understanding that many publishers have with who they identity with as their target readership is the fact that many readers need such reassurance as 'A Novel' for fear of reading something genre that may be excellent or worse still, something genre that they enjoy. 

So yeah, Michael Chabon writing 'A Tale of Adventure;' that is exactly what Gentlemen of the Road is and yet it is also the same authoritative writing grip and command over the English language that Chabon exudes would make you think this book--specifically this book--would say 'A Novel.'  He can still bend the language over backward and get from it whatever he wants, but ironically the combination of an adventure tale and Chabon combined to hold the two components back from what I felt either could have been without the other.

Amram and Zelikman are many things: wanderers, warriors, con artist and Jews among many others.  They are the titular gentlemen of the road.  Their travels lead them to cross paths with a boy who is the last descendant of the throne to the kingdom of Khazaria.  Throughout the novel they oscillate between the ideas of robbing and killing Filaq, the would be ruler of Khazaria, and wholly ignoring his existence.  While we're given all the elements for an amazing adventure tale things remain rather modest concerning plot.  While part of the book is adventure blended into the story of 'Jews with Swords' the other part are the colorful descriptions and vibrant prose that only Chabon is capable of; all-in-all his strongest asset kinda got in the way of the story.

Things aren't slow, nor or they what I would deem measured or well-paced but Chabon's usual flair and attention to detail on top of a host of tenth-century vocabulary does add up to needing a small dose of patience to feel your way through the story.  The prose never goes so far as to draw attention to itself but nor does it always enhance or endear itself to the story being told.  The novel's story--sorry I meant "Tale of Adventure"--didn't have strong enough elements for the language used to fully benefit as Chabon's prose usually does.  Or perhaps this is just the opinion of one who has read many such "Tales of Adventure."  If you're one of those readers who would ordinarily never read "a Tale of Adventure" then you may find Gentlemen of the Road to be the greatest thing committed to paper, and you might even go so far as to seek out other such 'Novels.' 

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick

I'll spare you the suspense: I really liked this collection.  Swanwick has been a favorite author of mine since I discovered his story "Urdumheim" years ago in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 2.  This collection covers a large part of the authors writing career and easily hits on all of his various manners of speculative fiction that range from the hardest of science fiction to the some of the most unique fantasy imaginable. 

In a collection this size, around five-hundred pages, it's easy to see an author develop their style; how they play with themes over and over, see what works, what doesn't and the end results of those efforts.  While the consistency of writing is stellar Swanwick certainly has gotten a bit more concise as his writing career has gone one.  The longest efforts in the collection, Griffon's Egg, and Trojan Horse seem to coincide with his hardcore sci fi stuff; which really isn't my thing to begin with.  Having nothing to do with page-count I think his strongest writing are the odd realities that seem like everyday life with something peculiar out of place; like the existence of zombies as a trade commodity in The Dead, or the necessity of guarding a door as an eight-hour job--as in, just staring at a door-- in Legions in Time.  

While the collection is heavy with Hugo and nebula winning prose it's the non specific genre material like Triceratops Summer, a piece that could seemingly appear anywhere that communicates a story that stayed with me longer than any of the intricate plotting and time travel than something like Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.  (And no, this is not a dinosaur specific collection.)  In Triceratops Summer we see a handful of people who are told they are going to relive the next few months a second time without knowledge of having done so the first time.  One quits his job and tells his wife they are going on vacation.  Others sadly--even angrily--fall in love, knowing they won't meet or remember their feelings for each other when time is up.

The Dog said Bow Wow would be hard for any not to enjoy as we see two con artist ply their trade in post technological apocalyptic England.  This story is hilarious and absurd and has spawned others like it as well as last year's excellent novel, Dancing with Bears.  More than any other in this collection this story feels unique to the author: as if no one else could have written it. 

From the one way train to Hell in North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy to worshipping the deity that is Janis Joplin in The Feast of Saint Janis, Swanwick will not only make you laugh and become engaged in his stories but the best of them will make you question parameters of genre fiction.  The best of example of the inclusive nature of his fiction would be the previously mentioned The Dead; where investors are applying Wall Street acumen to the acquisitions of zombies as a labor force.  Today's interpretation of zombie could be read a lot differently than when the story was written.  Today's college grads with questionable areas of speciality or how some Americans view the burgeoning Indian or Chinese population were just a few of the ideas that came to mind when I read the story and came to define 'zombie.' 

Another, and much smaller, short story collection of Swanwick's, The Dog Said Bow Wow would perhaps be a better introduction to the author.  It was a stronger in that it wasn't making an effort to be as comprehensive, but if you've already been there and done that, or come across the author's numerous offerings in other publications or online magazines you can do no wrong in seeking out more with this collection.  It has to be a collection of really special quality when I can't even find the space to talk about my favorite stories: Slow Life, Radiant Doors, and A Midwinter's Tale.  It's rare to find a collection of this size by one author with this kind of quality.  I was surprised when I came to end; not sad, but considering how prolific Swanwick is in what would seem in chosen medium I am more than ready for volume two.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome

I never expected to find a comedy in nineteenth century British literature.  Not only did I find one, but for me, it worked as the primary topic of humor was all the conventions and idioms that I usually dislike in literature of this time.  It's a never ending stream of self deprecating humor that probably outraged as many as it made laugh.

Three friends (not one of which seems grounded, they all seem to simply exist and do very well for themselves without work or any duties in life) decide to escape the drudgery--and in the case of one, chronic illness of everything--and difficulties of their life by taking a boat trip down the Thames.  The humor is in part reconciling the romance of how they think the trip will play itself out against the reality of how it really is. 

Part of the comedy is based on the events of the trip, but just as much if not more is on past reflections or anecdotes that have nothing to do with the three men in the boat.  All the material is generally funny (my edition was made a bit easier by the notes in the back) but as to the actual narrative in terms of story telling I wished there was a stronger emphasis on the current trip down the river than the recollections of the chore that is hanging a picture or past boat trips with women doing the work.  It's all funny but only some of the material dealt with present events.

The book is very contemporary, and I imagine that people of the time got much more out of it than today's readers would be able to but none of the material is so esoteric as to not be enjoyed regardless of the book's age. 

I don't know what I was expecting but I enjoyed all that was presented.  It's short and easy to get through and seemed to be catering to those who've read English literature of the time and thought to themselves that all the characters involved were absurd.  Before this book I never would have guessed that British of the time had a sense of humor.  The book is more than worth a read based solely on one characters musical challenges with voice and a banjo.  

That's my two-cents.  For another look check out what Maria had to say about the same book. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


This is all Maria's fault; and I mean that in the best way.  I had to pick up my copy of Three Men in A Boat by Jerome K Jerome today and I don't go into a used bookstore without looking around.  I additionally found Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon and The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster.  I've always loved Chabon, and Auster I've recently developed some serious interest in.

I didn't need to shopping, but it happens.  I'll be reading Chabon very soon; as in after my boat ride.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

In City of Glass author Daniel Quinn takes a phone call from Peter Stillman, who is looking for detective Paul Auster.  Stillman who has been subjected to a unique kind of child abuse in that his father--of the same name--wanting him to learn the language of God forbade him to learn how to speak.  Quinn assumes the role of Auster for want of anything better to do and follows Stillman's fresh out of prison father as he is sure his father has hostile intentions toward him. 

As Quinn plays the part of detective he slowly loses himself and his own ability to speak and communicate with people as he only writes in a notebook taking down notes of Stillman's father's wanderings.  Other roles of interest are meeting the real writer Paul Auster not the detective, and his son Daniel.  While there is a lot of think about Auster doesn't draw attention to his prose, but does make you wonder if what you're thinking about has any strong tangible connection to the story being told such as Auster's essay on Don Quixuote's alias.  It is similar to Quinn's use of a nom de plum and he pretends to be Auster and the character in his detective novels  and discourse on the tower of babel.  It's beautifully written (perhaps too well so, Peter Stillman's actually 'speech' was a bit tedious to get through, maybe more realistic that I really wanted to read if you follow) but the summation didn't feel like it hit as hard as it should have. 

Both Stillman's and Quinn eventually loses touch with reality; the latter possibly by way of taking on the roles of too many people and losing himself which seems to be all that is left to him after the loss of his wife and son.

The second book, Ghosts is more of a narrative essay on reading and writing; indirectly it speaks to the creative process and how it is approached from artist to consumer.  Keeping the 'detective' theme in mind the story, thin as it is, deals with two men, detectives of a sort watching each other endlessly neither knowing why or making anything that they could call discernible progress, yet unwilling to relent in their job.  They shadow each other making useless reports until the seeming futility of what they do leads them to out themselves to each other.  I felt in Ghost that the narrative obscured what would have otherwise been very powerful points Auster was trying to make.  I also encountered the power of a name in this story.  The two primaries are called Blue and Black: those are their names.  They both, may or may not work for a Mr White.  It's hard to get attached to characters named Black, White, and Blue and they came across as very impersonal despite the author fleshing them out.

The final book, The Locked Room deals with all the same themes but the story is so much stronger than the preceding two that all things written resonate a bit stronger than the City of Glass or Ghost.  A man, Fanshawe, leaves his wife Sophie, and child one day and is never heard from again.  His childhood friend is contacted by Sophie and asked to be the executor of his literary estate.  We see the narrator step into Fanshawe's life: preparing his work, contacting agents, marrying his wife and we see him loss the person he used to be.  While the story was most gripping in The Locked Room it was also perhaps the most unbelievable of the three.  The detective aspect here is in learning about Fanshawe and the reasons why he could walk away from his life.  For a fictional character Auster almost makes you think Fanshawe is a real writer so detailed are the exploits of his life and the narrator's study of his letters.  In general, Auster seems to be a minimal effort maximum yield type of writer.

Observation, isolation, and identity are themes in all three of stories quasi- detective stories.  It's all meta fiction-ish without being obnoxious.  The shared links of identity, doubt and uncertainty are strongly unifying and the reoccurring characters, or perhaps trying to identify them through out the three books, were a great surprise.  All stories and main characters also have a highly destructive element to them; as if we are waiting for them to intentionally mess things up somehow.  I didn't know what to expect going into this but I came away with a new author that is certainly now on my 'list.'  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I've owned this book since it's publication in 2004.  The receipt, which I found midway through, says I bought the book at a price that you can't purchase a new hardback book for today.  I've moved from Champaign-Urbana to Atlanta and moved three times within the metro area; taking this book with me each time, never once having cracked it open until a few days ago.  Considering what it cost and what I should have been spending my money on in graduate school on top the mileage this book has seen I had some heavy expectations when I started reading.  I've been avoiding this book, saving it, for right now: a time when I'm kinda over reading and struggling to find anything to hold my attention or that I find rewarding enough to stay with.  The phrase 'worth the wait' isn't applicable to this situation as I hadn't truly been anticipating reading the book nonetheless I'm glad I had this on hand at this time as it seemed to be just what I needed.

So what do you say about a book that has been fawned over and an industry darling for so many years?  That's it's really good and I highly recommend it?  There ain't much I can contribute that will be worth a damn at this time but here goes...

The story takes place in Barcelona in the middle of the twentieth century and deals with five very different secondary school friends and how their lives diverge and come back together.  One becomes an infamous police officer, one a priest, one a prodigal pauper, one a spendthrift philanthropist and the last a starving artist in Paris (which we are informed is the last location on earth where it is still fashionable to be such a thing).  As a young boy Daniel Sempere's father takes him to the cemetery of forgotten books, which is exactly what it sounds like (and if you're a book nerd you're dying to go there as well).  There, in the labyrinth of ever shifting book shelves, Daniel selects The Shadow of the Wind, the last known surviving copy, as his burden; his responsibly to take care of.  The book is the work of super obscure author Julián Carax whose books have been acquired and subsequently purged by fire since their publication.

Daniel reads the book and falls in love with it and has to learn more about it's author and seeks to find his other published works.  His obsession with the book and it's author attracts a lot of attention: from the police, book antiquarians, shady figures threatening him in the dark, and leads to a mystery concerning Carax's life and those closest to him.  The plot is fabulous and has a bit of everything in it from action to love story, mystery and intrigue but it's the author's use of language, imagery and metaphor in particular, that will stay with you the most.  While Zafón's prose is beautiful, it almost has to be considering how relentlessly mean he is to his characters.  I'm not sure I've ever seen an author make their characters suffer so much without crossing the lines of melodrama.  The quality of his prose is the balance: even when horrible things continue to happen that further endear the reader to the novel's characters the way things are depicted and expressed help smooth over the reality of the situation.  

Zafón works intimately with a lot of characters, seeing that almost none of them fall into the 'secondary' status, and weaves their lives together with new layers and mystery at every turn of the page.  Daniel, is really nothing more than a vehicle of discovery for past events and the catalyst in exposing turns of events.  While he is the narrator I'm not sure he's the main character, but he is the only one who could relate the story as I don't think readers would want to get so close as first-person narration--inside the head--with any other characters.  

The mystery takes years to unfold while we watch Daniel (who isn't the brightest kid on the block) attempt to grow up.  The story within a story structure works well and the two being told parallel each other at times.  There is enough tension on each page to ensure near impossibility in walking away from this book.  There is also, perhaps, the best 'side-kick' I've ever encounter in a book in the person Fermín Romero de Torres who's humor never feels forced and is always welcome considering the horrors that Daniel discovers.    

Pick a genre and this book will fit there.  I wouldn't say it's for everyone, it is definitely a book for people who like books, and who really enjoy reading.  I had some questions when I was done, and there were perhaps one or two characters who's presence I couldn't justify, but if ever a book deserves a round of applause and pat on the back for an ambitious narrative and intricate plotting that succeeds on so many levels, this would be it.  
I'm kinda sad that I read The Shadow of the Wind, because now, next time I'm in a funk I won't have a similar 'go to' book.  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

July is over.  Not much to say.  I try to read a couple of clunkers, both from favorite authors, but they fizzled out.  They were made up for by two excellent novels and the completion of a solid short story collection.

The anthology I finished Warriors, was kinda the norm for collections of it's kind these days.  There were one or to excellent stories.  Many really good ones, and a couple that stank and made me question there inclusion.  I was happy with it as I managed to walk away with the names of some good new-to-me authors.

As for August, I foresee a lot of free time and probably a good bit of reading as I'm too broke to fill in that free time with other activities.  Stay tuned I'll be more interesting very soon; I promise.