Sunday, December 02, 2018

Book 31 of 2018

Thomas Cromwell is one of the supreme Machiavellians. Mantel's novel follows him from his lowly, brutish beginnings as the son of an abusive blacksmith who often beat him near to death and thence to the heights of power as King Henry VIII's most trusted and most feared counselor.

Surprisingly, as Cromwell plots the destruction of his foes and Henry's foes he remains a sympathetic character. One can't help but admire his astute knowledge of languages, finance, business, fine art and crafts, his keen apprehension of human nature and psychology. His past as a soldier and street brawler who knows the heft of a knife and how to use it, his use of sophisticated Italian memory palace techniques to keep reams of data organized in his mind--all of this makes him eminently likable despite his dastardly and often deadly machinations.

He has a nose for hypocrisy, and hypocrites tend to fall first in his schemes, and when they don't fall first their karma is used to keep Henry's world in order and to achieve his aims. Cromwell makes himself the indispensable man, and nobles from old blood lines tremble lest he target them.

I found the book deeply involving and fascinating, and look forward to Part 2...

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Book 30 of 2018

What a great little novel! It's a classic haunted house tale with a multi-dimensional twist. Once you figure out what's happening to the victims you wish, as many do at horror films, that you could intervene somehow and stop them from doing what they are about to do. That's what makes dramatic irony so cool, right?

Of course a few of the victims are really distasteful people, so it's fun to see them get their occult comeuppance. But even they don't deserve this fate. Well, maybe the cop does.

As in Cloud Atlas, Mitchell keeps track of multiple narrative lines and characters and they are all fully fleshed out with profound and individual and entertaining back stories. Of course these lines and characters all end in a similar manner because their fate is pulling them gravitationally toward the singularity of Slade House. We get to experience this same fate from different points of view, and that's a fun exercise for a writer, to imagine how different people would experience and describe the same sorrowful fate. And Mitchell shows off by keeping them in character as they are snuffed--the things they notice and how they notice them are well done.

The little alley where Slade House hides itself is carefully and quaintly wrought. All of the settings are classic ghost story with 21st century updates. The House itself is truly entertaining, and its means of haunting is unique.

And the book, though creepy and harrowing, is also funny as hell. All good haunted house novels blend humor and despair. Mitchell does so quite well.

A great Halloween read. You can finish it between handing out candies Wednesday.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Books 28 and 29 of 2018

One of my favorite genres is the drug revelation memoir. I love reading authors attempting to describe going off the rails. I think of Walter Benjamin writing about hashish, or Aldous Huxley waxing philosophically about mescalin, or Castaneda's descriptions of peyote trips, or Burroughs, etc.

One of the coolest and most interesting thinkers and describers of such experiences was Terrence McKenna. And McKenna and his ideas are a large part of Lin's book. In fact, the only parts of the book which are at all interesting are when Lin is summarizing McKenna. Which leads me to ask why the hell anyone would read this book when they can just read McKenna or watch him on YouTube.

Because--no offense to Mr. Lin--this is the most boring book I've ever read about this topic. Or any topic. It's pointless. It's meandering. It says nothing new. Even the passages about depression and feeling alienated are dull...and another of my favorite genres is the descent into madness memoir by people who feel isolated and alienated and depressed.

How can a writer with any skills at all write tedious and wholly unimaginative descriptions of DMT and salvia divinorum experiences? I simply can't get my head around it. He smokes DMT and spends pages describing feeling distracted and paranoid and moving in and out of a tent he built in the corner from a blanket. He can't make a salvia experience at all tangible or interesting? Even Miley Cyrus can do that.

Nobody cares if you felt suspicious for six hours straight after she shared her DMT with you. How many pages can you spend giving her the hairy eye-ball while she wonders what the fuck your problem is? What did you see or feel inside that realm? That's what's interesting. McKenna and virtually every other writer creates edge-of-the-seat, earth-shattering descriptive passages of breathtaking wizardry about DMT. Lin's passages sag like over wet noodles. I remember as a novice writer in the Temple University MA program how Toby Olson complimented my description of a mushroom experience and pumped me up with lavish praise during a workshop, only to say "but anyone can write a good trip, it's almost cliched."

Mr. Lin--anyone can write a good trip. Why couldn't you? I read something by you before and that was better than this, but not better enough that I would want to read whatever you published between then and now. And after having read this, I definitely do not want to read whatever you published between that and this, because this was so bad. Sorry, dude.

Thank goodness Ms. Due provided a cleanse for the above atrocity. This is a fine selection of creepy fiction, and runs the gamut from traditional ghost stories which are finely crafted and inhabit an interesting niche to more action/adventure sci-fi thrillers. I particularly liked the one about demons in a Florida swamp who take over infants for a while in the summer--has a nice sardonic tone and delicious Twilight Zone moral! And best of all are the rather intense post-apocalyptic stories at the end. Definitely should go on your Halloween reading list.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Books 25, 26, and 27 of 2018

It took me forever to read this novel. Not because I got bogged down, or because it was so long...but because I didn't want to finish it. It could go on for 5000 pages and I would love that. The characters were so compelling I wanted it to keep going forever. And the characters are not only humans, but also trees. And trees are cool as fuck. So maybe there will be a sequel from the perspective of an elm or a red maple.

The first half of the novel I thought "This isn't a novel." It definitely stretched the boundaries of any of the traditional ideas of what a novel is or was or could be. Initially I thought The Overstory was simply a collection of vignettes or novellas with a thematic link. But they all eventually coalesce and the threads end up woven together in a satisfying canopy more in line with the traditional definition of a novel.

Now if only I could remember the other Richard Powers novel I read.  Or perhaps I've read two? Can't recall, though, even when I look at the titles. Something to do with Israel? I've read too many damn books. I'm totally stumped.

There's a blurb from "O Magazine" inside the front cover of this Vintage paperback which says the writing is "reminiscent of Henry James."


OK, had to get that out of my system. Not sure if I'm laughing about an "O Mag" writer referencing Henry James, or the content of the blurb itself.

There is some fine writing in this book, but nothing on par with James, even James at his worst is better than this. But it's got some good bits. I mean, the novel is about a blowjob which lasts 120 pages. And that's a pretty good blow job, though the participants are pretty bored during the blow job, as they spend a lot of time reminiscing, remembering, fantasizing, philosophizing, and otherwise discursing all over the place. I mean James also does that, but much more subtly and he was a savage when it came to point of view and characterization, whereas Minot, though she writes a tight sentence, well her POV shifts a lot and yet the voice often seems the same inside different characters. So the blower and the blowee are bloviating internally in similar ways. And alas, neither character is particularly likeable or interesting--in fact, they suck, and well yes one of them definitely sucks but they both do actually. So my verdict about Rapture is not quite that it blows, but that it blows for a book about blowing and being blown. It should be hard to make a book featuring fellatio as its central action tedious, but Minot dug deep into her writer's bag of tricks and managed it, right down to the climax. But to be fair, there is also some thoughtful stuff about gender and power and the problematic dynamics of sex and relationships given the complexities of gender and power. Just not enough of it to make this worth reading.

A somewhat tepid yet occasionally interesting book about Chomsky and the anarchistic ideal of mutual aid. The artwork is not so great, sometimes the gist vanishes and memoir becomes the focus, but I enjoyed the bit about Occupy Wall Street and its library.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Books 22, 23, and 24 of 2018

A Smiley novel without Smiley. I mean, Smiley is there, and his tendrils are woven throughout. But he is only very briefly present in the novel in a physical sense.

Alec Leamas is a more Bond-ish spy than Smiley, who mixes it up mostly in an intellectual sense. Leamas is an action man who works in the field. And his fate really lays bare the realities of that era and that region and the cold callousness of the Cold War. And that Cold War did not end as suspected decades ago but was carried on by the defeated side in new and ingenious ways. This is a novel so taught it thrums like power lines. I read it in about ten minutes.

I enjoy the 'descent into madness' genre of memoir. And when the memoir is written by a Surrealist and the long-time lover of Max Ernst at a time when the entire world had gone mad, well then of course it will be a worthwhile read. The first half of the book is an exquisite introduction, analysis, and biography of Leonora Carrington which is just as good as the memoir itself.

I just may begin collecting dew when the planets are in the correct houses, because Hall lets more of the cat out of the bag than anyone else I've read.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Books 20 and 21 of 2018

Have for a few years intended to read Le Carre. Call for the Dead has one of those immediately appealing English narrators who pull you up to the fire side and regale you with a finely spun tale. You know the sort of narrator of which I speak. And Smiley is an appealing bumbling sort of wise detective--I'd expected more of a spy/intrigue novel, but this is actually a murder mystery with some espionage overtones.

It's a good time to re-visit this Cold War era, what with a new Cold War in the wings, or perhaps the surprising new end of the Cold War after everyone thought it had already ended? We shall see. But this world of George Smiley and East and West and Iron Curtains and jockeying between Capitalists and Communists is the era in which I grew up, and how odd it is that it feels so distant now.

I found the novel appealing enough to continue with the series of George Smiley books. I like the portrait of England and English class structure after the War as its empire is dismantled and handed over to the Americans. There is the standard upper-crust snobbery and casual homophobia and anti-Semitism, but that of course was a feature of the age, and these features of English society are lampooned by LeCarre as much as recorded by him.


This installment is much less engaging than the first. This is more a Gothic mystery/horror tale with a gruesome murder at a decaying prestigious private school. The best bits are a sort of Evelyn Waugh-ish character whose disgust at the English class system and descriptions of its fraudulent institutions is rather amusing. But the plot is awkward and clunky, the characters are types who turn out in the end to not be what they seem a la virtually every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and as Le Carre describes the book in its introduction, there are some good instances of satire but overall it's a failed mystery thriller. I'd agree. But I shall continue with the series despite this disappointment. The end is particularly bad, as all the clues which have pointed one way suddenly are forced to point another and there is a quick arrest and then it just ends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book 19 of 2018

The Night Ocean: A Novel

When we were living in Baltimore and going to karaoke with a group of regulars a new guy joined us often. He was one of these young 30-ish guys who sport a carefully manicured beard, and who have a beard maintenance kit always to hand with a comb and some lotion to comb into the beard when too much beer or gin and tonic has frothed it up. He also had an aggressively maintained mustachio which curved elvishly up into spirals at each end of his upper lip. He couldn’t sing a lick, but was an enthusiastic singer nonetheless. In between singing, we drank and talked about shit. It’s what one does with karaoke buddies.

One night he pronounced Cthulhu incorrectly while discussing a meme, and I pointed it out and corrected his pronunciation, and he responded “I play Dungeons and Dragons, I think I know how to correctly say Cthulhu.” After I got over my initial shock that D & D had become a thing again (hipsters—is there nothing they won’t mine from the past and resuscitate with gusto?), I took up the challenge.

“Have you read Lovecraft?” I responded. He replied in the negative. “Well it’s interesting that you would know how to pronounce Cthulhu when you’ve never read Lovecraft. I have read EVERYTHING, and own the Arkham House four-volume Collected Works in hardback. My Honors English high school literature paper was a Jungian analysis of Lovecraft’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” and I was turned on to L. Sprague de Camp’s bio of HPL by my English teacher that year. I have perused many of his letters and have even endured his Vogon-quality poetry about mushrooms from Yuggoth. I read S.T. Joshi’s biography, Stephen King’s musings on HPL in Danse Macabre, and even read Michel Houellebecq’s acid little philosophical tome about Lovecraft’s worldview in the original French. I have a blog whose title is a Lovecraft pun. In many texts both scholarly and otherwise I have read how Lovecraft pronounced Cthulhu, so I’m pretty sure I know how to pronounce it, and I’m positive you do not.”

It’s a truism in life that know-it-alls are assholes. This guy was a know-it-all without any backup for his know-it-all-ism. I’m a know-it-all who brings out the heavy (and nerdy) artillery when needed.

When I was a teenager reading Lovecraft nobody in my circles knew who the fuck he was. Until Mrs. Hardin, my 12th grade English teacher, I don’t think I met anyone who had even heard of him, let alone read him. And now Lovecraft permeates our culture. Every time I see the latest Hollywood schlock there are HPL references, subtle or not. TV shows like Stranger Things are Lovecraft light. All the comic book films owe substantial debts to HPL. Political memes with Cthulu, T-shirts, mugs, plush toys—he’s everywhere. People who have never read Lovecraft and who would need a dictionary to get through the first two pages of “The Outsider” or “The Music of Eric Zahn” know about Cthulhu.

Many writers have been obsessions in my lifetime. Some of those obsessions re-wired my brain and came to permeate my day-to-day life. Lovecraft was the first to really do that for me, even though I only read him for a few years and stopped reading him by the time I was no longer a teen. His stories are for the most part awful—even the best ones are at best dis-satisfying. Trying to go back and re-read them is pointless; I can never slog through more than a few pages. But there was something about that alternate reality, and that cold archaic worldview…and those entities beyond time and space! For a formative time of my life, he set a standard, and though he was quickly replaced by Dostoevski and then Henry James and then others...he was a key figure in my youth and remains vitally important to me.

The Night Ocean is about HPL specifically, but more generally about stories and writers permeating one’s existence, saturating one’s being. It is an extended nerdgasm, not just for weird fiction fans, but for sci-fi geeks, political wonks, fans of archaeology, for beats and hippies. It’s also a reminder about how far we’ve come as a society in terms of acceptance of alternate lifestyles and tendencies.

Let me just run through some of the characters: Isaac Asimov, William S. Burroughs, Robert Barlow, Frederick Pohl, Hart Crane, Roy Cohn, Whitaker Chambers, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo. Houellebecq is included but is thinly disguised.

This novel is a well-imagined forgery about well-imagined forgeries about a weird Luddite racist throwback whose peculiar imaginings have tentacled their way down through the last century and a half, and whose distasteful personal beliefs and philosophy can teach Americans a lot about ourselves to this day. The Night Ocean was not what I expected, but it was a hoot. I learned some things about Lovecraft i did not know!

And, gleefully, the correct pronunciation of Cthulhu is explained herein.