Reading Roundup

I’m still reading; I’ve just neglected any form of response. Until now:


Recent events rekindled some sort of interest in the American Revolution. I’d heard McCullough’s non-fiction was a great read, specifically his skill in weaving dry facts into a compelling narrative. I wasn’t mistaken.

“We hold these truths self-evident”, and today those truths are an intuition, almost ingrained, that America was born, screaming and bloody from the womb of British oppression, marching on to kick red-coat ass all the way to Yorktown. But the truth of those times is far more tenuous and dire. The American Revolution was held together by a mere thread, perhaps even fraying. It was Washington’s pure will that spliced it together.

It’s natural to cast the founding fathers in bronze and stone, seven feet tall and flawless. That’s an obvious mistake. But it’s not a mistake to present these characters serving platonic ideals no less solid and booming. Washington was a man of tradition, honor, integrity, bravery, will. Those adjectives are little more than mocked these days (especially in the realm of politics). But they were real for Washington.

The Great Man theory of history has fallen out of favor, and who’s to say the shoeless farmer, hunkering down in filthy Valley Forge huts, wasn’t as brave, self-sacrificing and patriotic as Washington?

But I think Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Franklin can be elevated. All those monuments should remain standing. We need our mythology.

1776 is a fascinating read, and serves as a great companion to HBO’s Adams series.

Gun, With Occasional Music

Since I read The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I’ve been interested in a small crew of writers (Jonathan Lethem among them) reviving genre in literature. The twentieth century was a time of literary experimentation, casting aside the old tropes of story for more exotic forms. But I think those tropes are vital. Many of them compose the very DNA of human stories.

That’s not to say the popular pulp genres epitomize the essence of storytelling, but they do provide familiar frameworks. Take noir and dystopian science fiction, which Lethem expertly blends in Gun, With Occasional Music. At first glance, he presents an absurdist world of hardboiled detectives and talking animals (right out of Heavy Metal). The tone is decidedly noir, our gruff narrator Conrad bitterly riffing on California, his drug addiction, mysterious murders. But it’s the science fiction elements – evolved animals, designer drugs, an all-seeing Gestapo – that elevate the dystopia to a Kafkaesque horror.

The novel isn’t without flaws. The ending feels forced, the narrator can be a bit grating, and at times the language and imagery are a bit amateur. This was Lethem’s first book, after all. But it’s a fun, quick read, surprisingly relevant. And even more, it points in a hopeful direction for the reconciliation of genre and literature.

If on a Winter’s night, a Traveler

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.”

Calvino’s novel is one of the most innovative and original I’ve read. The novel begins in second person, speaking directly to the reader (read here). It makes assumptions about the reader, his or her style and preferences in reading, tastes in art and home decoration. Then it presents the supposed “first chapter” of If on a Winter’s Night, A traveler – a short abstract vignette of a man at a train station.

But the chapter ends inconclusively, on a suspenseful note, and we’re back with the second person narration, explaining how the hardback book has been misprinted and the remainder of the story is missing.

From there begins a meta-quest of sorts, the second person character (You, the reader), on a search for the rest of If on a Winter’s Night, A Traveler. You meet another reader, Ludmilla, who’s also searching for the missing sections. These intermediary chapters serve as a framework to introduce twenty-two first chapters, discovered on Your quest.

Some are quite interesting and well formed – I especially liked one about a coastal prison, another about the dissipation of the entire world to blinding white. But all of them are cut off before completion, truncated at a moment of suspense.

This can get frustrating during the reading, and that same frustration is mirrored in the intermediary Second Person chapters. The character of You is also annoyed he/she can’t finish reading these aborted first chapters.

As a whole, the meta-structure of If on a Winter’s Night can be jarring, but the prose itself (translated from Italian) is brisk, smooth, sublime. There’s a joy behind Calvino’s writing, as if he’s a smiling old man playing tricks, breaking the fourth wall, dancing with his pen.

It’s a brilliant novel, a great example of what writing can be and where imagination can go.

Best American Short Stories 2007

A few months ago I wrote about Stephen King and his essay about the state of the short story. King is much-maligned and ignored as a “popular writer”. But the truth is the man has a natural gift for telling stories. So I was interested to see what he’d pick for Best American Short Stories.

I’ve yet to read everything, but the select few he highlighted in his introduction were excellent. One in particular stood out, Sans farine by Jim Shepard.

It’s a nuanced and complex exploration about a family of executioners during the French Revolution, and how the disintegrating nation mirrors the turmoil and decay of the family. The prose is brilliant and powerful, long chains of metaphors and imagery. The smell of leather and candle wax, the clatter of the streets and decrepit crowds. The horror of the blood slicked guillotine. All these images, played through a man’s head, contemplating life and God and government. Probably captures the Reign of Terror better than anything I’ve read before.

I also enjoyed William Gay’s story of rural meth dealers “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Can Not Contain You”, and Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves”

It’s debatable whether King has upended the state of the short story in 2007 (there still an Alice Munro story…), but overall it’s a commendable effort.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Another short story collection I picked up, along with Best American. Post-Apocalyptic literature is all the fervor these days: The Road winning the Pulitzer, I Am Legend and Cloverfield, all the eco-Armageddon programs like Life After People on the History Channel. I think we’re intrigued by wiping away the complex world that binds us, and since it’s such a towering monster, the only force to do so is cataclysmic.

There’s something freeing about destruction, that even in horror, a world exists beyond the black clouds and fire and death. A world of survivors, nature, crumbling buildings, scavengers picking through refuse. Like Tyler Durden’s dream – “stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center.”

Wastelands is a collection of some of the best post-apocalyptic stories over the years. There’s work by some of the giants of the genre (Stephen King, George RR Martin, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolf), but also newcomers, including Jonathan Lethem and Elizabeth Bear.

I really enjoyed a story called The People of Sand and Slag – a group of post-human mercenaries that find a dog wandering through an acidic quarry. Elizabeth Bear’s “And the Deep Blue Sea” was also a standout – a simple tale of a motorcycle courier racing through a Mad Max American Southwest. Plus, I love her language.

Overall, it’s an excellent collection envisioning humanity’s darkest days.

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