Books: Summer 2017

A couple of years back, I took some time to write up some quick and unambitious reviews of books that I’d read – the good, the bad and the ugly. To be honest, I mostly did it because I hated the Southern Reach trilogy with the white hot intensity of a thousand suns. A year later, I repeated that process. Nothing fancy, just quick thoughts on some of what I’d been reading for people that might be looking for something new to read.

A month after that last post we had a kid and time to read – let alone write – came at something of a premium.

Fast forward a little less than two years and time is still very much at a premium, but I’m now able to sleep in more than three hour increments. Which means that I’m able to read again, if not at the pace I was familiar with. Which in turn means that I’m once more capable of having conversations with other friends who read, and with whom I trade book recommendations.

In an effort to scale that process, I’ve repeated the exercise of reviewing the last few books I’ve run through. This time, just for the record, I’ve added Amazon links not for the pennies I’d earn but to see whether any of the recommendations work, and if so which ones. With that, here are the reviews.

The Modern Entertainment

 

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel

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One of a growing set of “literary” fiction set in post-apocalyptic environments, Station Eleven has been compared in some quarters to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s not in that class of novel for me, but then there are few that are. Station Eleven is, however, a brilliantly executed and well written account of the world after the end of the world. It avoids nearly all of the pitfalls of the genre, it’s strikingly original and the quality is well above average. Recommended.

If you like this, try: The Last Ship (William Brinkley), The Stand (Stephen King)

The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, Laird Barron

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Originally described as a better written Lovecraft without the racism, this pretty much lived up to the billing. It’s a set of short stories that is best classified as “weird fiction,” which is another way of saying that if you like Lovecraft or the first season of True Detective, chances are pretty good you’ll like these. What’s distinctive about this collection beyond the relative quality of the prose is the diversity of settings and characters: from loggers to hunters to Prohibition gangsters, you’re not reading slightly different versions of the same story again and again. Barron also understands well what so many modern horror directors forget, that what can’t be seen is more frightening than what can be.

If you like this, try: The Complete Collection of H.P. Lovecraft (Lovecraft) or Between Here and the Yellow Sea (Nic Pizzolato)

The Hike, Drew Magary

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The fact that I’m recommending this in spite of Drew Magary’s hatred for my beloved Maine (which outdoes even Lev Grossman’s) tells you something about the quality of The Hike. It’s difficult to describe this book. It’s not quite magical realism, not quite surreal, but it’s got elements of both. It’s dark at times, but has a heart and the prose makes for a quick read as it’s not terribly ambitious. It’s a perfect beach read, in other words, and the end delivers.

If you like this, try: Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway) or The Book of Lost Things (John Connolly).

The Classics

Right Ho, Jeeves, P.G. Wodehouse

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Inexplicably, I somehow made it to adulthood without reading any of the Jeeves’ novels by P.G. Wodehouse. I wish I’d found them years ago, however, because they’re incredibly enjoyable. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it’s the story of a British valet trying to keep his dim employer out of trouble. The latter ignores the former’s advice, hilarity ensues. If you enjoy Dilbert’s “The Boss is an Idiot” brand of humor but can’t deal with Scott Adams’ obvious and growing insanity, the Jeeves’ novels are for you.

Trouble is My Business, Raymond Chandler

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There’s a funny story about Bacall/Bogart’s 1946 film The Big Sleep based on the novel of the same name by Raymond Chandler. During filming, neither the director nor the screenwriter could figure out who killed Bacall’s chauffeur in the novel, so they asked Chandler. Problem is, he didn’t know either.

The point is that Chandler isn’t considered a master of the hardboiled crime genre for his plotting skills. The stories are interesting, to be sure, and include the requisite action and drama. But what distinguishes Chandler from hundreds of others in the genre is that he can write. In a characteristic clipped style with sparse but stylish dialogue, Chandler has Marlowe, the private detective that is literally the prototype, weave his way through what we’d today refer to as a noir landscape.

Trouble is My Business isn’t the equal of The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye, but it’s an accessible set of short stories that will give you an idea of whether Chandler’s for you.

If you like this, try: The Big Sleep (Chandler) or Red Harvest (Dashiell Hammet).

The (Auto)Biographies

The Stranger in the Woods, Michael Finkel

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Many of us idly contemplate leaving everything behind at some point, but almost no one does it. And certainly no one does it the way that Christopher Knight did, who parked his truck and simply walked into the Maine woods and lived as a hermit without human contact for 27 years. If you read Michael Finkel’s profile of Knight in GQ when it came out, you already have the gist of the story, but this full length treatment affords the author and his (very reluctant) subject more room to explore the details of just how one goes about surviving in the Maine woods without ever seeing anyone or making a fire. Whatever one thinks about Knight, his adaptability to incomprehensibly harsh conditions is without ready comparison. Don’t expect any mystical revelations or real confessions from The North Pond Hermit, but if the story interests you this will more than flesh it out.

The Road, Jack London

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If you’re like me, you read Jack London in school, probably at an early age. Call of the Wild, White Fang, To Build a Fire – one of those. If you’re like me, you didn’t know that London spent years of his life as an itinerant, rail-riding hobo and later documented his experiences criss-crossing North America by hopping trains in a decidedly unstandard autobiograhy. As someone who enjoys learning more about other times and places, this was interesting, but the culture, methodology and art of riding the rails made this a particularly fascinating read. My only warning: because this was published in 1907, like many historical works, some of the descriptions and language are offensive to modern ears. If you can get by that, however, it’s a look at a bygone world that most of us knew nothing about.

If you like this, try: The Amateur Emigrant (Robert Louis Stevenson)

The One on Firewood (Seriously)

Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way, Lars Mytting

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To be fair, while this was a best seller throughout Scandinavia, as a book about chopping, stacking and drying wood, it’s less likely to be a page turner for those of you without woodstoves or at least a fireplace. Which is, presumably, most of you reading this. Even so, it’s well written and anything but a textbook. The prose has a bit of a lighthearted “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared“-quality to it, and is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s informative and well researched, but as surprising as it might be to say that a book about firewood was a great read, it really was. There’s a reason it had basically a five star rating with north of a hundred reviews when I bought it. If you have a stove or fireplace, it’s a must buy, and even for the rest of you, you’ll learn something and be entertained in the process.

The Histories(ish)

Kon Tiki, Thor Heyerdahl

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This was my second reading of Kon-Tiki, as I’d read a copy as a very young child at my grandfather’s place on the Cape. Besides refreshing myself on the actual details of the journey of a handful of young men on a Balsa raft all the way across the Pacific, my adult self was curious as to how some of the historical theories of Heyerdahl had aged. The answer is: not particularly well. Heyerdahl’s theory of a lost white race that taught the Incas everything they knew being the ancestors of today’s Polynesian populations is not only largely disproven by modern genetic research, it’s also implicitly racist when viewed from a modern perspective.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, shaky historical theories notwithstanding, Kon-Tiki is still a fascinating read. While Heyerdahl may have been wrong about the idea that Polynesia was populated by South Americans traveling west on the Pacific’s Humboldt current to Polynesia, he risked his life and proved that it could be done. If nothing else, Kon-Tiki is a remarkable story of human achievement and drive and worth a read for that alone.

Atlantic, Simon Winchester

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I read this at my parents’ recommendation and while I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, it wasn’t what I got. Atlantic is essentially a series of personal or historical anecdotes upon which are hung a stupefying amount of detail and research from geology to climatology. The good news is that if pure science isn’t your thing, you don’t have to wait long before the author’s talking about the time he spent in Greenland or the Falkland Islands or visiting a remote shipwreck on the coast of Africa. If you enjoy history, geology, oceanography, local cultures or a thousand other areas of study, you’ll find something to love about this book.

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears

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If you enjoy historical fiction generally and historical mysteries such as The Name of the Rose specifically, you’re likely to enjoy An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I don’t mean to imply that it’s in the class of Eco’s masterpiece, but set in late seventeenth century England, Pears’ novel is an account of the same series of events told from four different perspectives – all of which are unreliable, some more than others. The varying perspectives affords the novel greater breadth than it would have had access to if restricted to a single narrator, both in terms of their socio-cultural standing as well as their geographic access. It doesn’t have the blinding erudition or strict attention to period language that characterizes other novels of this type, but what it lacks in rigid adherence it more than makes up for in accessibility. Which means that you don’t need to be a scholar of English history of the period to enjoy the novel, which traverses ground from the royal court to academia. It’s on the longer side, but it’s time well spent in my opinion. Recommended.

If you like this, try: The Name of the Rose (Eco) or Q (Luther Blissett).

The Meh

Fer-Da-Lance / The League of Frightened Men, Rex Stout


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Before the hard boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, there was the so-called “cosy” school of which Agatha Christie is probably the best known practitioner. The former, in many respects, can be viewed as a response to the latter. Nero Wolfe, the protagonist of Rex Stout’s series, doesn’t properly belong to either category, which might be one of the reasons these novels didn’t do much for me. Unlike Chandler, who hated Christie, I can read both styles and enjoy them. But the Wolfe novels, for me, embodied the weaknesses of both categories with few of the strengths. I read the first two of the series largely because Stout is an acclaimed writer and Wolfe is a celebrity fictional detective up there with Marlowe, but frankly the plots were ill-constructed and the writing wasn’t enough to make up for it. I will say that the depression era setting and descriptions were interesting from a historical perspective.

If there are Wolfe fans reading this who can persuade me otherwise regarding the merits of these books, I’m willing to listen, but at present I have no plans to read the remaining 31 novels.

Books: Fall 2015

Last fall I took a few minutes and wrote up reviews for some of the books I’d been reading. I have no idea if anyone read that post, let alone any of the books recommended, but it was a useful exercise for me to capture my fresh impressions. What worked for me, what I thought fell flat. Why I liked or disliked a book, and to what degree.

If you’re interested in book recommendations, Harper Reed crowdsourced a related question and the answers were interesting. Some of the recommendations there are excellent.

But of the books I’ve read over the past few months, here are some of the more notable ones both good and bad. I’m restricting myself to fiction because non-fiction reviews take too long, but for what it’s worth I’m finding Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns of August less compelling than I expected.

With that preamble out of the way, some thoughts on books.

The Good

 

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino

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This is an experimental novel by Italo Calvino that is relayed in fragments, with a meta second-person narrative interwoven with segments from multiple fictional and incomplete novels. This book was another that made me wish that Goodreads split its ratings in two – one rating for technical execution, the second for enjoyment. If On a Winter’s Night would score very highly on the former, for me. It’s an impressive achievement, and I can’t say that I’ve ever read anything quite like it. Which makes it worth reading, and guarantees it a place in the “Good” section. That being said, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the process of reading it. I’m glad I read it, but I wasn’t as glad reading it if that makes sense.

Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

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As with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I somehow missed the Grapes of Wrath in school, in spite of having read quite a bit of Steinbeck along the way. This was unfortunate, as the Grapes of Wrath is a brilliant piece of work. The prose is excellent but accessible, it’s stylistically enjoyable and the characters are well drawn – not surprising because they were based in part on Steinbeck’s firsthand impressions of having spent time firsthand with many of the poor Okie migrants during the period. This was an important novel at the time, and if Piketty’s ideas on inequality are correct, will remain an important novel for the foreseeable future. Read this.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Jonas Jonasson

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Frequently compared – even in the book’s own description – to Forrest Gump, this book certainly has a lot in common with that novel. It also read to me like a less literate version of Mark Helprin’s Memoir from Antproof Case. Some reviewers hold it up as the antithesis – except in the quality, for better and for worse, of the writing itself – to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. Those comparisons are mostly reasonable, though it goes back to the slapstick well a bit too often to really present itself as the Swedish Forrest Gump. At times it has more in common with the old cartoon Mr Magoo. Going back to the two pronged rating above, I’d give Jonas Jonasson’s effort moderate marks for execution, but the novel itself is entertaining if ultimately light on the substance.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, John Le Carre

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Though I’ve read a couple of novels by his son, I’d never actually read any John Le Carre. To rectify this, I picked up his classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Like Ian Fleming before him, Le Carre was actually in the trade, not just writing about it. Unlike Fleming, Le Carre’s works are stark, understated and full of moral ambiguity. His experience as a spy is constantly evident, but not in a flashy way: his comprehensive understanding of the basic, pedestrian mechanics of spycraft are sublimated into a confusing world constantly engaged in silent war. It’s a realistic rather than stylized spy novel, which will work for some and not others. Fortunately for Le Carre, the former group is much, much larger than the latter.

The Book of Lost Things, John Connolly

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This Neil Gaiman-esque adult fairy tale borrows heavily from actual children’s fairy tales – there is a curiously lengthy postscript/bibliography, in fact, which traces these influences in detail. It’s not quite Neil Gaiman-esque in terms of the quality, but it’s an entertaining and readable story. Given some of the descriptions and themes, however, it’s probably not the first fairy tale you read to a young child. Once they’re a bit older, however, they may recognize some of the drivers behind the youthful protagonist and I could see it becoming a favorite.

The Peripheral, William Gibson

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This William Gibson novel was in every way a William Gibson novel. From the original, borderline-hallucinatory plot to the at times incomprehensible and yet taken for granted future tech, there is no point in reading the Peripheral when you’re not acutely aware that you’re reading Gibson. If you like Gibson, it’s probable that you’ll like The Peripheral. Not as much Neuromancer, but possibly more than the Bigend trilogy. I enjoyed it, even if he wrapped things up at the end a bit too neatly for me.

Revival, Stephen King

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See above. If you like Stephen King, you’ll probably enjoy Revival. It’s a nod to Machen with some Lovecraftian elements, but is all King otherwise (regrettably including his recent and unfortunate tendency to match older male protagonists with improbable (much) younger female love interests). Still, that’s a footnote in the larger arc of the book, which is dark and spans time and distance. This won’t be counted among King’s greater works, but it was an entertaining read for me.

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

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This novel was born admist a great deal of hype; it commanded a sizable advance for a first time author, and a great deal of attention as a result – a place on the New York Times Best Book of the Year list included. And it’s about baseball. Put those things together, and you would have figured I’d have read this years ago. Instead, I just read it this year, and my immediate reaction was that reading it is like watching a slow-motion car accident. Self-destructiveness doesn’t begin to describe how just about every character torches their own lives in one way or another. Hell, if I’d known a great deal of the book was about a player with Steve Blass disease – an utterly horrifying prospect for anyone who’s ever played a sport – I may never have started the book in the first place. To the novel’s credit, however, by the time I figured that out it was too late, and I had to finish it. The baseball is well rendered, and Harbach can write. It was a painful read at times, but ultimately a rewarding one.

The Entertaining

 

The Niceville Trilogy, Carsten Stroud

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I admit to being unfavorably disposed to a writer whose bio on his own website describes his own intellect using the adjective “staggering.” And each book in this trilogy is worse than the one that preceded it. All of that being said, this is an entertaining series which keeps horror, organized crime and bank job plots moving along at a reasonable pace, with each intermingling every so often. And from the bizarre set up to the conclusion, the series is original. The characters become more like cardboard cutouts as you go along, but in the beginning the series is several ticks above your usual thriller fare. If you treat these as pure entertainment – books for your next flight – you’re likely to enjoy them.

The Deep, Nick Cutter

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A post-apocalyptic book that has nothing to do with the apocalypse, The Deep is equal parts Event Horizon, The Thing and The Abyss. It’s not exactly great art, but for purposes of entertainment it’s got just enough flesh on the characters to hold your interest. It also avoids some of the more obvious monster movie cliches in ways that books such as The Ruins didn’t, so as a horror read it gets the job done.

Ghost Fleet, P. W. Singer and August Cole

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Picked this up before vacation following a recommendation from Tim Bray. As he acknowledged, it’s certainly not a great book – the characters in particular are cribbed liberally from your favorite war movie of choice. It’s no different, in that respect, from your average Tom Clancy novel, and Ghost Fleet is perhaps best described as an updated Red Storm Rising. With a few exceptions, the technical descriptions are plausible and the underlying assumption that the next war will be played out over networks seems certain, so the novel works and the pace is good. The book was of particular interest to me because one of the vessels playing a starring role, the USS Zumwalt, was built right here in Maine by Bath Iron Works, not ten minutes from where my parents live. It is just as weird looking as they describe. Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is a beach read, shallow from a character development and geopolitical standpoint but heavy on technical detail. If that’s your thing, it’s a quick read.

The Meh

 

Little, Big, John Crowley

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This book is virtually impossible to characterize. It’s most commonly treated as fantasy, but in many respects it’s fantasy in the way that One Hundred Years of Solitude or Corelli’s Mandolin are fantasy. It’s not in the class of either of those novels, but Crowley is a writer of impressive ability. The book is reminiscent of Helprin’s Winter’s Tale in both setting and plot, but remains an entirely distinct and unique work. For that alone, I had a tough time keeping it out of the Good section. But as impressive as the writing is at times, it’s a difficult to follow work that didn’t ultimately deliver on its promise for me. Be aware, however, that there are many reasonable, well-regarded readers on Goodreads who consider this one of the best books they have ever read, so this rating could simply be a failure on my part as the reader.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

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I really want to like Shirley Jackson. Gaiman, King, Matheson and others all consider her a major influence. But something about her work just doesn’t click for me, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle was unfortunately not an exception. Novels that have a loose relationship with reality are fine in my book, but there has to be underlying framework to support the suspension of disbelief. I didn’t find that here. Apparently this book was influenced by Jackson’s own agoraphobia, a perspective that is alien to me, so this may read very differently to different audiences. But apart from the obvious talent of the writer, this didn’t do much for me.

The Man in the High Castle, Philip K Dick

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The set up for this made the novel sound perfect: an alternate history in which the Axis powers won the second World War, including a novel within the novel casting doubt on the reality of the alternative reality. Dick-style questions about the nature of perception and reality combined with the author’s vision of a victorious Third Reich would seem to be a solid foundation to build from. Amazon certainly seems to think so, as they’re turning the novel into a dramatic series. For me, however, The Man in the High Castle was undone by characters that were shallow, two-dimensional and rarely worth investing in. The ending attempted to cover for the fact that the ambition and scope of the novel may have been a bit too broad to begin with, but only partially succeeds. This is worth reading, because of the topic and the writer, but keep your expectations muted.

Bird Box, Josh Malerman

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This book was buoyed by one of the more unique post-apocalyptic scenarios you’ll ever read, and it understands implicitly that what cannot be seen is always more frightening than what can be. That being said, I felt like I’d read the story arc of the protagonist, her children and the other characters many times over the past few years as post-apocalyptic fiction has gone mainstream. Couple that with a lack of any real answers or payoff, and the result is a well written genre book with a unique twist but not much substance.