The Year of Long Books

December 27th, 2012

I don’t think I’ll declare 2012 a banner year in my particular life. Many things that I had intended to do with the year went undone, many of the goals I set for the year went unmet. But there were positive things in it, and a bit of a reversal of one of my long held opinions.

I read a lot of long books this year.

I have, in the past, used this space to extoll the virtues of shorter fiction. Friend will not be surprised to find I nodded along with Ian McEwan’s short essay on the virtues of the novella. There are a lot of long books out there, and it takes a lot of our precious time to read them. Why waste your time on them? Because sometimes, even I have to admit, they are worth it.

What amazes me is that I am backing off on my previous stance in a year when I read such frustrating long books. On the list of very long form fiction I read this year, you can find 1Q84 (which I found to be inferior to almost all of Murakami’s prior work, despite critics declaring it his magnum opus). You can also find the first five books of the Song of Ice and Fire (which has numerous length and time based detractors), the two published parts of the the Kingkiller Chronicle (book 2 is almost as long as the entire damn Lord of the Rings trilogy, and begins to drag), and Reamde (enjoyable if totally disposable Stephenson. I also toyed with the Baroque cycle, the Ramayana, Dream of the Red Chamber, and Gormengahst, without really starting in on them. You can also add a few more, because every year is the year I intend to read Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and Ulysses. I just never get around to those. And my friend Colin always loved Mason & Dixon, so I’ll probably give that a shot some day, despite disagreeing with him about Delillo’s Underworld.

So, why have I changed my mind? Middlemarch. I read it in parts over the whole year and it rekindled the idea that by attempting more in the long form, more could be achieved. I’d stumbled through Bleak House in 2011 and hadn’t hated it, but as with most Dickens had been unable to look past what I see as the flaws (for all his reputation for brilliant characters, most of them strike me as single note entities existing as a parody of the human condition). George Eliot’s characters felt real to me. By the end, though the setting is as limited as many other English country novels, I had remembered that by risking the attempt of the enormous, greater effect can be achieved. It was a refreshing feeling. It also got me to add Daniel Deronda to the list of larger novels I plan to attempt.

I also read a fair number of shorter books with had either no effect or struggled to survive the very conceit under which they were conceived. I’m looking at you Sugar Frosted Nut-Sack. It was the first year as a reader that I’ve abandoned books with any regularity. I almost always go back to books, no matter how long it takes. I maintain a list. I maintain too many lists. But it is unlikely that I will ever pick up The Thin Place or The Tragedy of Arthur again. Despite recommendations from people I trust, the voices of both these books left me very cold. That’s not to say that their authors failed, but I appear to have finally reached a point where I can say, “it’s not you, it’s both of us,” to authors.

So that leaves me with 10 books of 800+ pages on a list of 202 books that I still intend to read before I die. There will be others of course, but these are the ones that have been set aside to read for reasons other than a particular spine serendipitously falling into my hands. Perhaps I’ll get to all 10 in 2013 (highly unlikely). But at least I won’t be picking them up grudgingly.

A while back I meant to say more about this stuff, but I’m going to just close the tabs…

Apparently there is a backlash against Ian McEwan going on. I can’t help but think that part of this is that there is a subset of readers (of whom I am often a part) who want authors to be perfect creators of wonderful gem like novels that change your life every time you read one, and are always as good as the last. There’s a reason we’re so often disappointed. McEwan also suffers from being successful enough that other people get a kick out of hating him. I’ve been guilty of this one from time to time as well, though not direct at him. The drummer from Phish once said he’d know they’d made it when people started hating them just for who they were, not their music. I’m guessing McEwan isn’t loosing a lot of sleep over this one. I’m also guessing that a lot of the people who are saying they hate him now are just disappointed because he didn’t live up to their over inflated expectations.

Mark Millar on the other hand I frequently feel is presented as far deeper than he really is. Much of his stuff seems like empty crap done for shock value. He probably isn’t loosing any sleep over me though either.

Through Bookslut, I stumbled onto this plea for better Hugo shortlists.

It was interesting and inspiring, but I think it may miss the point of why many people read science fiction. Genre readers are often very similar. Mystery readers are an excellent example, some of them churning through the books in the field at a pace that astonishes and may scare people a little. Looking around the advice on the tubes, you find that mystery novelists especially, and genre writers in general, general are editing one book, working on writing the next, and promoting the one that just got published. The industry has to keep pace with the most voracious readers with low sales and high volume, which doesn’t serve the authors very well, and doesn’t let the books achieve anything beyond a workmanlike mediocrity most of the time. Those sorts of readers are looking for escapism more than erudition, and if there are a large number of voters who are that kind of voracious reader, for better or worse, it will show up as mediocrity in the listed books.

Also of note from that post was that the new Le Guin was good if flawed. This is heartening news. I had given up on her after I felt she phoned in several novels upon closing up the Earthsea cycle.

1984

July 21st, 2009

A few of my friends have kindles, and I’m sure they’ve all read 1984 and have paper copies, so it won’t have effected them much that the title was removed in an act of pure irony by Amazon, ostensibly at the request of Orwell’s estate. This is yet another lesson (many of them provided by the estate of James Joyce) in poor management of your own intellectual capital.

In other, personal, book news, rereading The Diamond Age is a good thing, it holds up very well when you know what is going to happen already. This is a feat that surprisingly few books manage.

On David Copperfield

January 4th, 2009

I finished David Copperfield (Modern Library Classics)
tonight. It was an odd experience. Because I have been reading it in installments delivered to my email, and because those installments totaled over 400, I feel like I might have some small indication of what it was like to read it when it first came out. I grant that there were larger chunks when it was first published, but it was strung out over a similar length of time.

When reading Dickens slowly like this, I find that the sins of which he is accused, the overly repetitious characterization and his general loquaciousness seem to fall away. You need a refresher on some of the charaters sometimes, and by the end, David is like an old friend saying goodbye. Maybe not your best friend, but someone you meet for coffee from time to time and catch up on the latest with him. And it is a bit of a one sided conversation, but you put up with it because you always have.

Some Bright Sides

June 17th, 2008

Well… with the computer out of commission, I found myself unable to get much work done on the big project. That was frustrating, as this week was supposed to be the big push to finish it, I should have been able to do that by the end of the month.

So I wanted to be able to get something done on that front while I waited to get my computer back, and was busy grousing to myself that the other computer was the one with all the software licenses. This gave me a chance to use Google Docs. I’d never done so before, and I have to say that I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to get me to abandon what I normally use, but it’s fine in the short term.

It also reminds me that I’m a little crazy for having a program just to do outlines. And despite that program, I’d let my outline of the text fall off in the past few chapters and I was flying blind. Without the main text though, I’m outlining the last eight chapters finally, which should speed things up if it is anything like when I was last working with an outline. Not my most efficient use of time, these past few weeks, if loosing my primary computer forces me to get cracking.

Also, as a PSA for the few people who read this in Minneapolis: (and some who may be coming into town for the wedding) Dreamhaven is moving. What does this mean? They’re not looking forward to having to haul all their stuff, so for this month there is a big sale. Used paperbacks are 75% off original cover price, with a minimum of 75¢. That means most books are under a dollar in their used section. A lot of the comics are 10¢. The other day I walked out with a pile I could barely carry for just over $15. You should check it out if you are in town.

Tokyo Knife Attack

June 8th, 2008

There are very few times in life that you can look to and say, “Now I know that ‘x’ book changed my life.” Usually, whatever way a book might have changed you is subtle and insidious. You never notice the choice you made or the shift in your reactions.

Today was not like that. My reading of this BBC article was changed by having read Haruki Murakami, I’m not sure for the better. My initial reaction, upon reading that the knifing happened on the same day as another knifing from 2001, was to think that it would be a Murakami story in a few years. A lot of his work is about finding order and shape to the seemingly meaningless events that surround us. Once the matching dates came in, it just felt like one of his stories. Combine that with an increase in mass stabbings… and well, I start to feel a little guilty thinking that way.

Christie’s Mysteries

February 21st, 2008

Over the past few months, I have read three Poirot novels bby Agatha Christie. It took me a while to get over how racist they are. In Murder on the Orient Express, a man is stabbed. While they are trying to figure out the case, someone advances that it must have been the Italian passenger who did this. His only reason? He feels that Italians are a stabbing people. That would be one thing, but the other characters all take that at face value. No one questions it. In the other two books I’ve read, characters who love money have pointedly been called Semetic.

At times I don’t know why I keep reading. She wasn’t a particularly good writer of sentences. There are plenty of bits that read like bad fiction workshop stuff. That may be a result of her success, or it may simply be a reliance on cliche. I mean, God, she wrote how many of these things?

But I keep reading them, and I’ll probably read a few more, at least the one where Poirot dies, and the rest that are in the binding of five novels I have. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about how formulaic she was, and indeed she is. But, as I started in on the latest one, I realized what kept them entertaining. She knows how formulaic she’s gotten. A few pages into The ABC Murders, Hastings, Poirot’s requisit foil, turns to Poirot and basically announces that this mystery is unlike any of the other they have worked on. Poirot agrees with him. For all I know it’s true, but who are they trying to convince? I like the feeling of watching a writer trying to derail the train to get the spark of life back into things. I like that the stories all feel shopworn before I’ve even read them. I like using them to put off the end of 1984. I don’t want to read about poor Winston getting tortured by rats.

1984 related note. On this, my… I think fifth attempt to read it all the way through, I have now gotten farther than before. Previous attempts left me grumpy and depressed about halfway through. This time I’m over two thirds through. I see why so many high school students fall in love with it, but I wonder if mayby I missed the window to really love this book.

Over the past week, I’ve gotten to read quite a bit more than usual. That means mostly that I’ve put off reading some of the things I’m stalled on, and focused on other books that grabbed me on the spur of the moment. One of those books was Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis of Transmet fame.

It didn’t take long to read, I’m not a terribly fast reader and it lasted all of three hours for me. The book clocks in at 245 pages, very small pages. I’m glad I borrowed it.

It’s not that this book offended me, though the whole point of it seems to be either getting offended at it and shouting, thus boosting sales, or proving to your friends how edgy you are by liking it. At this point in our society (can we call this P.H. for Post Hunter or P.T. for Post Thompson) shock is not a novel thing. Crooked Little Vein is a book built to shock, and make that shock feel novel. All the quotes on the cover are supposed to verify its edgy credentials, and all its testicular saline injection and “you live in a police state” crap is supposed to shock. There is only the barest thinnest wisp of a plot. It’s function is to move the protagonist from one “shocking” person to the next.

The protagonist is a detective. A caricature of the corrupt behind the scenes evil politician gives him a job. That job is to find a crazy thing that shouldn’t exist. On his way to find the thing, a path written in large letters with spilled glow stick fluid, he meets a lot of strange people who want him to realize that strange is normal. Is there anyone who reads Warren Ellis who didn’t decide that strange was normal in the mid to late 90s?

But what, dear reader, is the payoff? Well, Mr. Ellis informs, the internet has changed everything.

Well Fuck. The World is Flat.

So, the payoff here is a Thomas Friedman op-ed. On the way I get some very pro-porn pseudo edgy writing. Friedman plus porn… aside from the fact that I don’t every want to think about those two things in context again? Meh. The book was meh. It was candy for three hours filled by an after void of meh. Oh my God it’s full of meh.

It’s not that I dislike Mr. Ellis’s shtick. In fact, I normally quite like it. But without illustrations to bring some of the madcap crazy to life… it falls a little flat. Rising to the level of solidly workmanly is a bit disappointing. At least it was only a few hours…

Book: More Equal Than Others

February 6th, 2008

Recently I finished More Equal Than Others, Godfrey Hodgson’s historical survey of America from 1975 to 2000.

It is rare that I feel a book should be read by absolutely everyone. This book might go on that list though. With the election season in full swing now, I cannot help having large swaths of the coverage tinted by my having read this book. As a history of the last quarter of the twentieth century, with some references sneaking in as late as 2003, it does an amazing job of outlining how we got here. My political memory of that quarter century is handicapped by being under the age of 12 for much of it, you might begin to see why I liked it so much.

There are limitations of course, the book came out several years ago, and does not know about the decline of the Republican party that seems to be going on right now. But on the whole, it does a fantastic job of summing up twenty five years in three hundred pages, which is an admirable feat in itself. It also pulls off the deft trick of not being too dry, despite a healthy dose of facts and figures supplied as the basis of Hodgson’s arguments. Of course, that dryness comes with the territory, but Hodgson is a talented enough writer to keep things moving at a very brisk pace.

I’ve already begun lending it out to any co-worker wiling to read it.

Well Crap

December 19th, 2007

When it comes to science fiction, I am a forgiving reader. Philip K. Dick, despite his amazing imagination, wrote amazingly flat prose. It has a way of just sitting on the page, not doing anything much on its own. This is usually compensated for by the fact that almost every idea that came out of his head was interesting. For years the man just churned out novels like some of us take a long shit.

Almost all of those novels have a hero confronting the disintegration of what they think of as their reality. So, I was was saddened when I completed Confessions of a Crap Artist, his realistic novel. Without the science fiction element, I can’t say there was very much to recommend it. The lack of broad ideas highlighted how much he relied on simple character archetypes to populate his books. There are also numerous characters who fail to act in a believable way. That would be fine, if Dick could sell me on why they did it, but he can’t. At one point a character contemplates how he is acting irrationally, and concludes that it is because he wants to. Even he does not sound convinced. The fact that he is trying to get a way from a sociopath and deciding she is worth staying with, even knowing she isn’t right in the head, puts a big neon sign over his head.

I could forgive this, if only there were an interesting technology or some general conflict, but I have just outlined what is probably the biggest moral dilemma of the entire novel. Other than that, the characters just sort of float along, letting things happen to them, or not. The climax happens four fifths of the way though and then it takes forever to finish up.

Usually these things are crazy little gems. Maybe I’ll read Electric Sheep again to cleans the palate.

Sports Similes

November 19th, 2007

I don’t look to sports writing for the best that the language has to offer. These people have to churn out text, frequently after a late night game, with the bed calling out to them. Often they got into the industry through the sport, rather than a background in journalism. So I’m pretty forgiving when a place like ESPN has a poorly constructed sentence, or a weird metaphor or simile. Sometimes though, I can’t pass it up without comment. Today, I saw this:

“It was like a post-graduate course in Leadership 101.”

I just sat there for a moment. I mean, sure, you could have a school where they renumbered the graduate courses to start in the hundreds again, maybe some of them even do. But everyone uses 101 for the basics. Why would you try to fight that? Why add 101 to the end of that sentence?

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