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Randall Reads: John Dies at the End, but the Story Dies Much Earlier Than That

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

And, really, I’m not sure John does die at the end!

The first few days I was reading this, it seemed destined to land in the rare air of 4- or 5-stars. Using Goodreads’ tags for star ratings, those numbers are reserved for “really liked it” and “it was amazing,” respectively. I don’t say either of those things about books (or movies, or songs, or much of anything for that matter) lightly. Hence, when we’re talking about a work that is tagged as being “genre fiction, it was really shaping up to be quite the coup.

Unfortunately, the novel is split into two connected books, with “Book II: Korrock” not holding up to the promise and pacing that makes “Book I: They China Food!”

I first came across David Wong’s (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) novel through a list of “The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium.”  My relationship to horror writing is somewhat responsible for my love of reading, in general, as Stephen King was the man who motivated me to pick up a book and read it of my own volition (WAY back in the early 1980’s when I was actually young.

THIS cover!

I realize fully this is far from a unique story.

30 years and a degree in English Language and Literature did little to keep me closely connected to my first literary love. The list was serving to remind me that I once preferred horror novels to all others.

Hopefully, nobody has walked away already thinking I’ve ever thought of horror (or fiction of any genre, for that matter) as less worthy of readership than anything else. I don’t think that in the slightest.

I DO think, however, that the style of writing in much of what falls into some genres could simply be better. It turns out that, while I love a good, fun story, my enjoyment of it is exponentially increased when the use of language to tell it is considered.

I also tend to want deeper character development than I often see, but that’s not as important to me in these situations.

So…where was I? Yes, the list.

Who doesn’t love a list? Even when you get mad at the injustice of your favorite potential list member being excluded, you still love the list. This seemed like a good resource for finding a book to help me reconnect with a somewhat-lost love.

“John Dies at the End” was the first book in the list at #25. Between the quirky title and cover photo, I was already pretty much sold. Hence, my chuckling at the inclusion of terms like “penis doorknobs” and “demonic wiggers” in the description was just so much drawing a design into the frothy milk atop the latte: nice, but not necessary.

You’ll get immediately that this story is told in a humorous voice. I mean, did you miss the mention of “penis doorknobs.” In a sense, the voice makes this a bit less a horror novel than what I’m used to, which is as good an illustration as to the completely daft nature of trying to slap a label on everything in the first place.

Then again, what scared me when I was 10-years-old is unlikely to scare me now, eh?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the book due to a bit of immature humor, however. While it’s there, I wouldn’t say it’s too pervasive other than in a few moments. Without giving too much away, when John (of the title) essentially attacks captors with the feces being sprayed from a dog’s rear end, it doesn’t seem slapstick-y; it actually works in context.

The problem here is more one of structure.

“They China Food!” moves at a great pace, heavily seasoned with action scenes and comedic moments. When it ended, I was completely satisfied with pretty much everything about it. The author did a great job of developing a mythology around his two protagonists—John and David (the purported author of the book)—while setting things in motion at a quick clip with several memorable scenes that will undoubtedly be excellent scenes in the upcoming film of the same name.

Unfortunately, you don’t get too far into “Korrock” before realizing that the author had a great, fun story to tell, but then needed to scramble the characters into another scenario to get to novel length.

The book’s afterword, in which Pargin tells the story of how the novel was hatched as a part-time online venture that caught fire via word-of-mouth recommendations, would seem to indicate that converting the online product to a novel necessarily created unique challenges. As tight and fast-paced as the first part of the book is, the second part is at least equally as sprawling and dragging. My overall impression of the book on the whole likely suffers from the comedown from the first part, which is vastly superior, in my opinion.

See?

That being said, I look forward to the recently released sequel: This Book is Full of Spiders, because even with the structural issues I had with John Dies at the End the final accounting leaves you with a fun, new voice working the under-served confluence area of horror, comedy, and science-fiction. The adventures of John and David are unlikely to appeal to all comers, but for the right audience, this novel hits a lot of the right notes.

Plus, Wong knows a little something about covers and titles, yeah?

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My 2012 in Reading: Lists

January 22, 2013 Leave a comment

The 25 Novels I Read in 2010, From Favorite to Least

  1. City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
  2. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  4. Canada by Richard Ford
  5. The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle
  6. The Dead Do Not Improve by Jay Caspian Kang
  7. Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce
  8. The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror by Christopher Moore
  9. Deadwood by Pete Dexter
  10. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  11. Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey
  12. The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson
  13. Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
  14. Open City by Teju Cole
  15. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  16. Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
  17. Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig
  18. Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
  19. Carpathia by Matt Forbeck
  20. The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
  21. Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
  22. Empire State by Adam Christopher
  23. ?
  24. ?
  25. Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

So…I guess I read only 23 novels. I probably counted a Sherman Alexie short-story collection the first go. I’ve no idea where the other one went. Maybe something I started and refused to finish. No, maybe the twitter thing Jennifer Egan did? Whatever the case, I think it’s funnier to have a list of 25 with only 23 elements to it, so I’m not editing it now.

Actually, I’m adding place-holders in two spots because I want to call “Lightning Rods” out for being the 25th best book of the 23 I read. THAT at least begins to touch on how awful I find that particular piece.

I don’t know I need to explain more than that. It’s a list. Obviously, everything is relative, but I think I could find something to recommend in at least 19 of these books. If you need more than that, for some reason, holler at me.

Categories: Books, Literature Tags: ,

My Open ‘Dear John’ Letter to the Tournament of Books

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s not me; it’s you.

Like all hot-and-heavy romances, ours was fated to burn brightly, if only briefly.

But now, I fear it is over.

When I first saw you, I was stunned by the sheer audacity of combining something I adore about sports—the head-to-head, single-elimination tournament—with discussion about books. It would not be too much to say I was simply awestruck and immediately knew we were a perfect match.

As one does in such situations, I dived in without reservation or consideration, wildly throwing 16 titles into my Seattle Public Library queue with bold disregard for whatever any information available about the books themselves, allowing infatuation to set-aside book-selection processes that had served me relatively well over the course of a reading lifetime. If you loved it, then I wanted to love it, too. 

It’s easy to see now how this was bound to lead to this, but isn’t it always thus?

Then, you put “Lightning Rods” in my hands. 

I admit, I wondered whether something wasn’t up right then and there. There was no waiting for the book from the library, which is never a good sign. Nor is it favorable when I’ve not somehow read about or heard of the book, considering how much book-centric media I absorb on a daily basis. 

BUT! We only work if we trust each other, yeah? 

So I read.

It were as if, on the first time you cooked dinner for me, I thought I saw you not wash your hands after handling raw poultry and, rather than thinking that maybe I need to slow it down for my own benefit, I tried to dismiss it as over-thinking the situation and happily eat.

We know now, of course, that I got really, really sick after that meal. Can I blame the hand-washing incident explicitly? Maybe not, but…here we are.

Don’t get me wrong; we had some great times. “The Sisters Brothers,” “The Art of Fielding,”  “The Tiger’s Wife,” and, of course, the lovely March romp of book-battle discussion.

We’ll always have March!

Eventually, I wrote-off the “Lightning Rods” incident and the slightly less-offensive failure of “Open City” to meet my tastes to the point where it all still seemed as fresh and exciting as day one by the time I was faced with a long stretch apart from my new crush.

This year, you came along a little earlier than last with even more titles than before. I didn’t ask myself “Why?” you felt the need to tart it up a bit. Rather, I was simply happy to see you here, and it was January 2012 all over again. 

And, truly, it was the same thing all over again, except that, this time, maybe my eyes were open just a wee bit more.

Like “Lightning Rods” last year, I managed to get one of the entries this year almost immediately due to it being sold at a deep-discount as an ebook on the day I heard the titles announced. Again, I jumped to the “buy” button, not reading the description of “Song of Achilles,” nor any reviews or discussion around it. 

This time, however, it felt like true deceit, even with all the disclaimers about how the final list of competitors are not ever meant to be definitive of the best 16 (this year, 18) books from the previous year. I wanted desperately to be wrong about the novel, but no matter how I looked at it, I felt I had been conned into reading a glorified romance novel, once you looked past the obvious appeal of a retelling some great Greek mythology with a contemporary prosaic style. 

And the realization stung.

Stung enough that I went back to re-examine things more deeply.

Suddenly, the new play-in round in which three novels will compete for a place among the final 16 didn’t seem like such an innocent little quirk, when considering the unlikelihood of the three novels in question all being set around the same topic (war in the Middle East) having been the three novels between which a panel could not decide for the final seat at the table.

Then I take a quick count of author gender and see a nearly even split between women and men, and, rather than thinking it sheer happenstance, wonder whether the panel didn’t tinker to make sure the tournament didn’t find itself yet another target of those who’ve questioned loudly the last few years the dominance of male-written pieces in some forums. 

And, if such politically correct tinkering is taking place, how on Earth did you end up with such a predominantly white collection of authors?!

Maybe it IS my fault for not looking beyond the surface before charging in, but I’m always going to resent feeling manipulated. While trying to remember only the good times, I probably don’t really want to know what you were doing, what your real motivations were. 

But, it’s over. I have been shocked back into remembering who I am. 

We can still be friends, though. Cool?

Mired in the Brogue of “Skagboys”

October 10, 2012 5 comments

Despite a fondness for the works of Irvine Welsh, I admittedly was slightly dreading my start of the recently released prequel to Trainspotting. 

My wife pre-ordered Skagboys as a birthday gift to me. I am a big fan of the film version of Trainspotting, which has led to also following the careers of several of those involved in its making.

  • Danny Boyle has become one of cinema’s premier directors, scoring an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire. I’m sure I was not the only person watching the Opening Ceremony from the London Olympic Games in anticipation of the Trainspotting-esque moment, not realizing until mid-point that the entire ceremony was a bit Trainspotting-y. There’s nothing on his resume I’ve watched and not thoroughly enjoyed.
  • Jonny Lee Miller has been around long enough to be a bit of a household name, particularly now that he’s in the new major-network take on the Sherlock Holmes story.
  • Ewan MacGregor is probably even more well-known, having worked in a good many major films including the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars prequels.
  • Robert Carlyle is also a regular on American network TV, portraying Rumplestiltskin in (largely unwatchable) Once Upon a Timebut I still dig him. He’s also tackled Adolf Hitler and King James I! Pretty sure Begbie kicks all their arses, but…
  • Ewen Bremner was a treat (for me, anyhow) in Black Hawk Down 
  • I admit that most of the reason I watched Nanny McPhee was because Kelly MacDonald was in it.
  • My wife tells me that a doctor on Gray’s Anatomy is played by the same guy who was Tommy.

It might be said I have an unhealthy relationship with the film, though it led me to read Welsh’s book (and then books, plural) rather than to score some dope, so…healthy enough, eh?

Anyhow…trying to circle back to the point…the slight dread I experienced managed to survive an overwhelming adulation for the characters Welsh created and the world in which he has them muck about.

It’s just that the books are so incredibly difficult to read!

If you’ve read them, you likely nod your head in agreement.

If not, I’ll just say that ah dinnae ken what tae tell yae!

Actually, I DO know what to tell you, but I was just trying to illustrate the point, which is that the dialogue, both internal and ex-, is written in a highly stylized brogue. While it definitely adds, overall, to my enjoyment of and submersion into the world of the novels, it greatly slows my progress through it.

Generally, I will make my way through a 300-page novel in 4 to 6 days, depending on how many of those days include an hour-plus sitting on the bus between home and work. I opened Skagboys for the first time 11 days ago.

I’m on page 158.

In fairness, I spent four extra days I’d normally be going into the city instead working from home. Definitely had some impact. Still, I can actually feel myself reading slower than what I’m used to and it’s driving me crazy, especially as the “to read” pile expands rapidly as some favorite authors all are publishing new works (Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Justin Cronin, Victor LaValle, Junot Diaz, Chuck Wendig, etc.), not to mention it was already a bit of a bloaty list.

This should not, however, register as a complaint. It really is part of what I love about Welsh’s writing and why I am quick to return to this particularly story.

“Wir gaun doon thaire tae have a wee fuckin blether wi this Hong Kong Fuey cunt!”

That’s fun!

I just wish I could pick up the dialect a bit more quickly. As of now, I still have to read the dialogue aloud to myself in my head to even hope to make sense of much of it.

Otherwise, it’s pretty interesting to watch these characters move through their pre-addiction lives knowing how it eventually runs for them. Because I declined a re-read of Trainspotting before starting Skagboys, my memories of the characters are probably closer to the film versions, which I’ve seen several times. Whatever the case, the characters all seem to be pretty much on-point right now, which makes me feel good about the book. I’m not sure whether there are any charges of “cashing-in” to be hurled at the appearance of the prequel, but I’m definitely getting a sense Welsh was more motivated by his feelings about the characters than by some cynical cash grab.

Now that I’m nice and irritated after watching baseball for the last few hours, I guess I’ll go wrestle a bit more with the brogue.

Satan is Real! “The Devil All the Time,” by Donald Ray Pollock

The word “devil” is in the title. If this might bother you a little bit, don’t read this.

The cover is a bit creepy. If this makes you hesitate, don’t read this.

There is some violence. If you are the sort who can’t be past such subject matter, don’t read this.

There are, in fact, some fairly nasty people and events found in the text of this book…

Surely, you are either in or out by now. No need to continue down this road.

Go ahead and read the prologue. Experience a short scene with the Russell family through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy already haunted by his father’s twin obsessions of drinking and praying. That should either drive you the other way or drag you into Knockemstiff, Ohio en route to wild ride through the lives of some stark characters wandering the haunted hillsides of Donald Ray Pollock’s first full-length novel.

If you’re like me, you’re going to be thrilled.

The characters alone are enough to keep your attention throughout the span of the book. You have the aforementioned Arvin Russell, who witnesses some interesting prayer tactics on the part of his father, who is desperately attempting to enlist the help of the divine to heal his terminally ill wife The creative use and manipulation of religion and its true believers creates a stable of quirky people operating in separate story lines, touching only lightly until they collide in spectacularly horrific ways. Think “slow motion train wreck.”

Our cast of characters include:

Arvin and his parents, which we’ve covered enough without telling the story (I’ve mentioned I don’t do story recap, yeah?)

Arvin’s grandmother and the orphaned girl for whom she cares.

Roy and Theodore: When first you meet these two, Roy dumps spiders over his head as part of a sermon, accompanied by the guitar playing of wheelchair-bound Theodore. Theodore loves Roy.

The Flamingo Lady and Flapjack the Clown: Barely in the book, but a perfect place to mention them. (In fact, if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re reading that there is a character called ‘Flapjack the Clown,’ and are not already arranging to own the book, I can’t help you.)

Carl and Sandy: The depiction of this couple has to be the reason so many reviews of this novel mention Quentin Tarantino. I mean, I guess you can make a case for them evoking Mickey and Mallory, but it would be a weak case, indeed. I am not much a fan of reviews that compare the work being reviewed with other works with a greater resonance in pop-culture spheres. I hate to just dismiss it as lazy, but it IS lazy and often misses the mark. This here, is a great example. There’s a lot of violence. Does that make it Tarantino-esque? I wouldn’t deny the man is known for including a lot of bloody mess in his films, but I always think of the alluring dialogue in his films. There’s nothing in Pollock’s writing that will remind you of Jules and Vincent discussing Parisian fast food.

And, right after I called it lazy…

There is a LOT of violence here. I know some people are sensitive to that and will automatically be unable to move past it to see the strength of this piece, which is some highly stylized writing. If you’re reading it and can’t stop thinking of how violent it is, that’s obviously a problem. It reminds me of the first time I saw an episode of “Deadwood” on HBO. I hadn’t been following the story, so I wasn’t absorbed into enjoying the local color, characters or plot well enough to not hear the word “FUCK!” being exclaimed every fifth syllable. It kicked me out of the story again and again to where I failed to make the 30-minute mark.

Watching the series from the beginning, however, had a bit of a numbing effect to where I’m not sure I didn’t imagine how much they were cursing my first experience. Make no mistake; I’m aware there is still a lot of cursing, but now it just seems all part of that local color I learned to understand to enjoy way back in tenth grade when we discussed “The Outcasts of Poker Flats,” by Bret Harte.

Of course, the language in “Deadwood” doesn’t quite drive the action the way the violence does in “The Devil All the Time.” Not a perfect analogy in that sense. I was just trying to say you’d do well to look around the blood to get to the meat.

It’s probably fair to address a perceived flaw or two if I’m going to request you overlook something else.

Any reader is going to pick up a book with all these story lines and assume they’re going to be tied together at some point. The ways all the assorted characters are brought together when they’re brought together does give one a bit of a “Oh, COME ON!” reaction. I don’t wish to say “predictable” because I don’t think it is that, but there is an element of tidiness to it that is a bit incongruous with the messy lives of these characters. Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. I mean, when you read a Jason Bourne book, you know he’s ultimately not going to be killed. Here, you’re put early in a position of knowing that something is coming and, hence, can somewhat see it coming at you. Again, doesn’t ruin it for me.

Essentially, you’re either going to like the style, tone, and storytelling capacity of Donald Ray Pollock or you won’t. I’d imagine this book and author to be somewhat polarizing in that sense. I’m going to call myself a fan, which means I may or may not admit to overlooking some things in favor of an overall joy of reading the book. This also means that, should you say it’s no good, I reserve the right to dismiss you with a “eh…what do you know?!”

DEVIL! DEVIL! DEVIL!

Randall Reads: ‘Lightning Rods’ by Helen DeWitt

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment
After the first 30 pages or so of this book, I set it down at the dining room table and walked away, shaking my head. I told my wife what I had just read. It seemed ridiculous, and it was hard to gauge where the story could possibly be going from there. It just was very far removed from the sort of thing I normally read.

Eventually, I continued. As I did, I started to enjoy the absurd nature of the events of the book, but didn’t think about it more than that.

The book meandered to a close at some point, to which my reaction was something along the lines of “Okay…?”

When the 2012 Tournament of Books entrants were announced, I went to the Seattle Public Library website and quickly placed holds on all the books I’d not yet read (most of them), figuring I’d read first whichever books first became available. Simple enough plan, eh?

‘Lightning Rods’ I didn’t even have to put on hold. It was not checked out. Maybe now I should have taken that and the fact that it was the only book of the 16 I’d not read one shred about. In fact, I didn’t recall ever even hearing of it or the author. Not unreasonable, but I read a lot about books. Just the nature of how the ToB qualifies its entrants, I’d have had to have heard of it!

But I hadn’t. Now I can somewhat piece together why.

It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it.

Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point.

But I didn’t get the point. If I explained the premise of this book to you over a cup of coffee (not even a ‘venti,’ just a tall), you’d likely walk away thinking you’d like to read the book, even though I’d be trying to assure you, “Look, everything I just told you in this thumbnail sketch? That’s it! That’s all there is to it!”

There’s no character development or pleasant-to-the-ear prose, which are two of the things I enjoy most about a book. Throw that atop a very superficial story…just not much to recomment.

Finally, the one thing I keep reading about this book now is how funny it is. I would say the premise is funny, again, in a completely absurd way (which, as a huge Monty Python devotee, should work for me), but the odds you’ll be chuckling even every ten pages is remote.

I’ve moved on to “Salvage the Bones.” Much more my speed.

ESPN: Those Guys Want All the Credit

January 18, 2012 Leave a comment

This begins with a confession: I am a long-time sports fan and, hence, absorber of ESPN through multiple media.

In fact, the primary thing with which I’m going to take from having read this book will be just how much the growth and transformation of ESPN as a brand has influenced the sports-fan facet of my personality. The timing of it, as well as the way they targeted sports fans, was perfect.

BUT, does that mean you can publish 745 pages of “oral history” about the place without it becoming a bit of a slog?

Maybe you can, but that was not achieved here.

Only sheer determination to get to the juicy bits with Keith Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Tony Kornheiser, Bill Simmons, etc. got me through the first few hundred pages (yes, the first few hundred pages), in which all these executive types (I tend to call them “rich white dudes”) do battle over who is taking too much credit for what, while also establishing just how large a role each of them had in many important developments early on in the lifespan of the network. Eventually, the scope widens to allow on-air talent to also take part in the credit-grabbing dialog.

Along the way, you get some pretty interesting looks at some of the interpersonal dynamics behind the scenes.

Well, it’s interesting to a degree and likely only if you’re interested in the people and topic. I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who doesn’t know who Chris Berman or Stuart Scott is.

I had enjoyed “Live from New York” several years ago, which is an oral history of Saturday Night Live written by these same two authors: James A. Miller and Tom Shales. It was similarly long, but the nature of the cast and writers, in my opinion, made for a lot more-interesting reading. The ESPN book, in my opinion, could have been trimmed by about 300 pages and not lost much. Then again, I do know a lot more about ESPN’s history than I did.

“Did you know?” (to borrow an old Sportscenter segment title)

  • Mike Tirico was pretty creepy in a sexual-harassment sense, acting somewhat like a stalker at times?
  • Almost nobody likes Keith Olbermann, but everyone pretty much regards him as a ‘genius?’
  • Multiple on-air personalities have been suspended for having used Adolf Hitler in comparative analysis of sports figures and events?
  • The network sat on the Ben Roethlisberger rape allegations until it was so widely reported that they just appeared to be either slow or hoping it would blow over?
  • Rush Limbaugh still believes anything and everything he said in regard to Donovan McNabb was fine and/or taken out-of-context and that everyone agrees with him but those conspiring against him and that he truly believes in a color-blind society? (As truly a “HOLY SHIT THIS GUY!” moment as I’ve ever had reading anything ever)

All of those and more are revealed within and, ultimately, made the tome worth lugging around for two weeks while I worked my way through it on bus and water taxi rides to work, as well as holding it above my head before bed time in a bit of derring-do as I would sometimes fall asleep (of being tired, not bored), putting myself in danger of breaking my nose when dropping it on my face.

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