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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.

My Year in Reading: The Version with Lists

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Because, really, we all love to hate those end-of-year lists that are EVERYWHERE this time of year. I mean, that means we love them too, right?

In 2011, I finished 54 titles. I don’t know how that ranks with the reading rates of most readers, but it feels a bit on the slow side. I’m guessing people who are not habitual readers would find that to be a staggeringly impossible number. Having seen the pace at which my wife can put away a book (She read the entire “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga in less than a month this summer, and that is at her new slower post-baby clip), I figure a good number of folk simply scoff at such a weak number.

What I do know is that I didn’t read nearly enough of 2011’s newly published works to have it make any sense to attempt a “best of” sort of list with aspirations of comprehensiveness. Hence, I’ve broken the 54 books into a few different categories, which were then organized into some fashion to indicate overall value to me in some way or other.

(Relatively) Recent Fiction

Turns out that 20 of the books I read were fictional novels published in either 2010 or 2011. I liked the roundness of 20, so I did a simple order of preference for those.  I’m sure the Franzen and Eugenides books would/should be in there, if only I had read them…

  1. Embassytown by China Mieville
  2. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
  3. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
  4. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Silent Land by Graham Joyce
  6. Low Town by Daniel Polansky
  7. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
  8. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
  9. The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan
  10. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
  11. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  12. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
  14. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
  15. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
  16. Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  17. Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon
  18. The Tower, The Zoo and The Tortoise by Julia Stuart
  19. Red on Red by Edward Conlon
  20. Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

I’ve no desire to defend my decisions to anyone, really. It’s just about personal preference. Besides, I have to admit, when I was asked earlier what my favorite novel of the year was, I replied with “The Art of Fielding” having forgotten entirely about “Embassytown.” But, really, I’m all about the Mieville. It’s AMAZING!

Yes, I had to ‘shout’ that bit.

And, then in what must seem like a preemptive bout of defensiveness, I should at least point out I do tend to prefer my fiction with fantastical and/or science-fiction elements. Despite knowing that about myself, I was a little surprised to see the Graham Joyce and Daniel Polansky books as high on that list as they are, but then remembered what a blast I had reading them; the same can simply not be said for the last five books on the list, each of which was a challenge to finish for me.

But, I DID finish them, unlike…

Simply could NOT do it!

  1. What We Do is Secret by Thorn Kief Hillsbury
  2. Last Man Through the Gate by Tim C. Taylor
  3. Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

One might argue that three books I did not finish shouldn’t be listed among “books I finished.” My counter-point would be that I am finished with them, whether I read them to completion or no.

I do feel a little dirty about having gotten only to the seventh page of the Hillsbury book and counting it, but I knew by then I was going to maybe set either it or myself on fire before I could ever get through it. It had a weird spoken-word vibe to it that simply doesn’t work for me. “Last Man Through the Gate” was a freebie e-book; anyone who has read many of those knows how entirely hit-or-(most likely) miss those can be.

The Kim Stanley Robinson book was a disappointment for me. The premise, wherein the same group of characters are reincarnated throughout an alternate history of world civilization, was a complete hit for me. Unfortunately, I just ran out of steam with it. It’s a long book and, without a strong central narrative, just lost me.

Graphic Novels

  1. Locke & Key, Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraftby Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  2. Locke & Key, Volume 2: Head Games by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  3. Locke & Key, Volume 3: Crown of Shadows by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
  4. The Walking Dead, Volume 1: Days Gone By by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
  5. Priest: Genesis, Volumes 1-3 by Min-Woo Hyung

I generally don’t read graphic novels because, truly, the artwork is completely lost on me. I find myself rushing through them to get the story, but I know that, in order to really appreciate them, I should slow it down a bit and observe the work of the illustrator.

But I don’t and won’t.

Despite that, I was completely sucked in by the Locke & Key series and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a good haunted house tale.

The other two I could have done without reading.

Collections

  1. Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock
  2. Granta 117: Horror by John Freman (editor)
  3. Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason by Mike Sacks

Simply put, Knockemstiff was one of the most-compelling things I’ve ever read. It probably could have been listed among the fiction novels, but it really is a collection of related short stories. Though, now that I think on it, it’s probably less disjointed than Egan’s “Goon Squad,” the format of which leaves me baffled as to how it garnered the crazy amounts of regard it did.

And, it’s definitely more cohesive than King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” which is a collection of novellas.

Oh well. What’s done is done. Pollock is so good, he deserves his own category anyhow.

The Sacks is meant to be funny. I didn’t think it was funny. Is there anything more subjective than comedy? Not sure there is.

Non-Fiction 

  1. WAR by Sebastian Junger
  2. Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine by George Dohrmann
  3. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual by Michael Pollan
  4. I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 2o Years Away by Bill Bryson
  5. The Egg & I by Betty MacDonald
  6. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton
  7. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Conner
  8. No Touch Monkey: and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late  by Ayun Halliday
  9. The Game From Where I Stand: A Ballplayer’s Inside View by Doug Glanville

Only now that I’ve typed this list am I aware of the consistent practice of spiking the title of non-fiction books with a colon and a clarification of the book’s subject matter, which I do find slightly odd.

At any rate, I’m fairly fond of saying that I don’t read much non-fiction, so I’m a little baffled when I realize non-fiction made up of nearly 17% of my total haul for the year. That percentage is actually higher if I were to flesh it out to account for magazine articles and news and what not, but I’d never have guessed it were even this high for just the books.

And it shouldn’t be, because this list is dominated by books I found sincerely lacking. Really, only the first two would I say were truly compelling. The Pollan book is great, but isn’t really much of a book, as it’s a bunch of short items on (re)defining food in an era where food products has become the norm of the American diet. I love it, but it is what it is.

The other six books I either just didn’t enjoy or actively hated. The Hamilton memoir was really a let-down as it was highly praised, but, to me, it quickly turned into a long lament/complaint piece. If a friend gets a little whiny on Facebook, I’ll hide them from my feed, but this? I got tricked into a few hundred pages of “Oh, it’s all so sad, really.” I actively hated it by the end, which should tell you something about the books I rate below it.

The Glanville book is remarkably boring when you consider the guy played major-league baseball for several years and that I really like baseball. I didn’t hate it, but can’t remember one thing I read in it that I could say was worth the effort. Tremendously boring, which is quite an accomplishment when writing about a subject I quite enjoy.

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