Simplest Things Last

Monday, June 20, 2016

STL #120: 2015 in Reading

Yes, I'm aware it is nearing the end of June 2016. Still in the sixth month window thoug! I actually made these lists on January 7th, so I'll transcribe them for posterity and add whatever remarks come to mind at this later date.

I have two lists because 2015 was crime-fiction intensive (by design). At one point, last June I think it was, I read 30 crime novels in 30 days (some of them graphical and some novella length. My first list is a list of writers who impressed, based on books I hadn't read before (I reread works by Hammet and Chandler, so that didn't seem fair). The second last encompasses everything that didn't fit the rubric of crime fiction.  I'll take advantage of the long view I've incubated to see about encompassing the best of both in a single list.

List One: Crime Writers

  1. Donald Westlake (Black Ice, Sour Lemon Score,  The Dame, The Damsel, Somebody Owes Me Money, 361, The Ax, The Cutie, Dancing Aztecs (also read his collected nonfiction). He's been a favorite for years now. I'm still in the middle of the re/read of Parker. The Ax is a classic and Dancing Aztecs  is a classic that just missed and is consigned to the "dated" category.
  2. Lawrence Block (first four Matthew Scudder novels and his three books on writing). Westlake's friend. I read and loved his Sacred Ginmill so went back to the beginning of his series. Right now, I'm on Eight Million Ways to Die. All enjoyable, none quite stand out.
  3. Agatha Christie (Mysterious Affair at Styles, Murder in the Vicarage, Dead Man's Folly, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Murder on the Orient Express). There are some charming moments in most of these (an accidentally erotic inner monologue at the Istanbul train station sticks in my mind), though they don't usually have much to do with the plots. A fun way to pass the time.
  4. Josephine Tey (Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time)  I liked the former quite a lot, though the latter seems over-rated to me (and it has been rated the best mystery of all-time in certain circles).
  5. John D. Macdonald (Deep Blue Goodby, Cape Fear/The Mercenaries) Two great books. The latter more of a thriller.
  6. Chester Himes (Blind Man with a Pistol) Could be a transcendent commentary on being black in America in the late 60s. Doesn't really come together as a novel for me, but stays in the mind. 
  7. Daniel Woodrell (Tomato Red).  Loved the voice of this novel. I want more Appalachian noir!
  8. Sjo and Wahl (Roseanna, The Man Who Went Up in Smoke). Although clearly a step beyond in terms of intensity, reminds me of Maigret.
  9. Hakan Nesser (Mind's Eye). The winner of my contemporary Nordic Noir bracket. Most of the big names (Nesbo, Fossum, Mankell) I didn't really care for. 
  10. Don Winslow (The Cartel). A little pulpy. If that's a criticism. 
List Two: Works of (Non-crime) Fiction and Nonfiction
  1. Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I got into mindfulness theoretically, though struggle to practice. But to the beginner mind, that's okay. This is the best of several audiobooks I listened to. 
  2. Days of Rage by Bryan Burrough. So fascinated by the topic, I don't really have a take on the prose, one way or another.
  3. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace. The inverse of the above. The prose is so spectacular, the topics don't really matter. 
  4. Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong. A big, serious book. The basic argument is that religion isn't the cause of violence, it is the agricultural state. 
  5. Saints and Sinners by Lawrence Wright. See #2, though I suspect Wright is the superior writer.
  6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I recognize this as an important book and I am glad I read it. 
  7. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Transporting experience. The unofficial launch of a year of Westerns. 
  8. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I'm not sure why I included this because I had a no-rereads rule in effect for other parts of the list. Jackson is a genius.
  9. The Tenth of December by George Saunders. Finally coming to this "new voice." And it is a new, perfect voice. 
  10. Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand. Good, but makes the list based on the fact that, as a mock 33 1/3 on a fictitious progressive British folk group's masterpiece album, it is targeted directly at me. Since I also read her black-metal murder mysteries, I should conclude I sure her sensibilities. 
List the New: How it looks half-a-year later
  1. Consider the Lobster
  2. Lonesome Dove
  3. Days of Rage
  4. Tenth of December
  5. Roseanna
  6. Deep Blue Good-by
  7. Brat Farrar
  8. Tomato Red
  9. The Ax
  10. Mindfulness for Beginners

Note: Two out of Three Falls

I was recently asked to comment on the question, "What is best and/or worst book-to-movie spec fic translation project ever?" Here is my response to the "best" part of the question:
I can think of three approaches to this question. The first and simplest is to identify the best (or worst) film that happens to be based on a work that we define as "spec fic," which I take to refer to the sf/fantasy/horror continuum. Consulting my top 100 movies of all time list, I see that that happens to be The Shining. The second, more nuanced, approach is to identify the film that adds to and/or reimagines something inherent in the source material, but elevates or transcends the source material. Using this "value-added" approach, the answer is, again, The Shining, though, look. poor blood-soaked Carrie is right behind. The third, and most nerdly, approach would be an appeal to faithfulness to the source material. So... Lord of the Rings? Watchmen? Since this method points in the direction of Zach Snyder, I prefer not to pursue it.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

STL #119: Beginning Again

Reading a book of Donald Westlake’s nonfiction last month, I came across the fact I’d come across before—that Joseph Conrad didn’t begin writing until he was 45 years old. Westlake joined this well-known case with Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe, who also made his publishing debut at the age of 45.*  As a lazy man of letters nearing that age, I was compelled as I often am around my birthday (which coincides with summer and which means, for me, more time) to return to the idea of a daily writing practice. This time it might even stick.  

Back to the primal scene of this particular inspiration. Inspired anew every year at my birthday, I pledge again to start a daily writing practice. Just an hour a day, I vowed, as I wrote the first draft of this as a free verse poem over coffee, bread with honey. To sit for an hour a day and grind it out—to make something out of pure work. “To find my own mind and soul” I wrote. Then I wrote  “Maybe even leave a mark for my life.” 

Think of Westlake himself; a working writer since a teenager, running a squad of pseudonyms publishing a short shelf of novels every year.By the time he was my age, he had half a career behind him. But is that what I am after?

I’ve tried what I bracketed as “[the writing life]” before: dreck novels in a month; an abandoned screenplay; spurts of daily poems. What about my dissertation, or a handful of academic articles (stuff I really don’t care about). The truth is, writing is hard and what I write tends to be bad. 

But maybe at 45 years of age I start to understand my real reasons—not to get into libraries and living rooms like Conrad and Stout, but to make some shape and meaning for myself and this world.  And so I make another birthday pledge (belatedly, I needed some revision time): one hour of writing, every day, in any form. I started this as a poem because it said “ah me! hear my foibles! sing my weakness!” but it broke loose to discursive prose. Maybe tomorrow I’ll find a poem, or pitch for a comic book. I’ll get back to that academic prose too, and try to make it less bullshitty. 

My practice will be simply to write, in any format so long as I record it in my notebook. It can be first drafts or revision if so fitting. I’ll be back here on the blog on a weekly basis, for any writing that is appropriate for this particular forum. 

*(A little Internet research suggest that Westlake got his facts wrong) Rex Stout I knew little about, and it seems Westlake is being deceptive. Stout wrote for the pulps as a youth, retired to business, and published his first book at 43. The larger point is that he made his mark with 33 books published from his 40s to his 80s. There are other deceptive cases of later bloomers like Raymond Chandler (44) and Davenport. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

STL #118: The Territory, the Map (Some Private Jokes and the Illuminatus Trilogy)


Seems Low: An Open Letter to the FAB-C on The Illuminatus Trilogy
 I agree. Two starts out of five does seem low. A conspiracy-fueled romp in which nothing is true but everything is permitted that anointed Bugs Bunny as an anarchist saint and postulates a social misfire between H.P. Lovecraft and Hart Crane? A parodic tour through counter-culture by an ardent amateur scholar who comments lucidly on Joyce and Pound, who taken together represent my jelly and my jam? It sounds like something I should love, but I don’t. And I never have.

I thought it might be different this time. I first read Illuminatus in the early nineties, just on the cusp of a period of advanced snobbishness. At the time, the novel had near samizdat status. You’d hear about it, but it was hard to lay your hands on (at least it was for me). So when I at last picked it up, I bought it new(!) in the big 900 page edition. In the first reading, I scoffed at the bald pastiche of Pynchon, Burroughs, and Reed, more original and more sophisticated stylists who I had first read in the preceding year or so (I mentioned the nascent snobbery). To tell the truth, I was really offended by the rip off of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49.  As I recall, the whole thing was a slog, but I did finish it.

I’ve loosened up since then. Not everything needs to be a literary masterpiece, and in the interim I’ve become more interested in writers from the margins and writers whose work grapples with the constraints and limitations of genre. I love the quote from Philip K. Dick: “The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum" and that is the stratum these mass-market paperbacks live in. Yet the pieces still don’t fit together in a meaningful way: reading the trilogy is like surfing a crackpot subset of Wikipedia (or The Whole Earth Catalog) where the links are tired bits of genre (detective, sf, porn) pastiche. But just as the map is not the territory (as psychoceramicist RAW fondly  quotes one of his crackpots), a list is not a novel. There is a nerd disease, I think, of taking taking the inventory of shiny objects in a text, preferably imbued in some way with nostalgia, as representative of aesthetic quality. (At least this is my working theory about fan-defined literatures such as sff. I first came up with it while reading the Stross novel that includes the skeletons in the spacesuits and the genetically-engineered merpeople on the water planet. Which is awesome.) I will give the trilogy credit for capturing a zeitgeist, but not much more.
[redacted digression on Guy Davenport’s take on Ezra Pound’s take on Ernest Fenosolla’s take on the Chinese ideogram. Oh my, what good stuff you’re missing here!]

But, no, it’s not there. There’s nothing like rigor, nothing holding up the pastiche and parody. RAW comes off as sophomoric, in a sense I didn’t appreciate 20 years ago. Not just the dated porny bits, but the fundamental “maybe logic” that he invokes as if it is open-mindedness: ok, so not every U.S. President is involved in this conspiracy, but the Aga Khan does exist, so there must be something to it. That is so obviously hogwash that I don’t have anything to say about it. RAW says question everything, but really that’s just a kind of knee-jerk dogmatism of its own.  He doesn’t tell us how to get any answers. Which makes sense, since he makes us spend so much time in a gold-plated (i.e. yellow) submarine full of libertarians.  

SO the map is not the territory. If you, like me, appreciate the notion of the Illuminatus books more than the actual execution, I have a few recommendations: not only  Pynchon, Burroughs, and Reed, but also The Invisibles, which includes the King in Yellow and secret societies aplenty; Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, which convincing connects John of Leyden to Johnny (Rotten) Lydon, by way of the Caberet Voltaire and late night sci fi movies; and of course, A Draft of XXX Cantos.

In closing, I’d like to thank JC (if those are your real initials) for loaning me this copy last March 23rd. (Actually it was the 24th, but I understand your intention.) This loan was made possible because “Dibs” found another copy, so thanks to AP for planting that fnord-filled counterfeit within her grasp. Thanks of course to Big Guy for nominating the book so all this could happen, and thanks to MD for rearranging the street signs of the Sovereign Duchy every time we go there. And finally, thanks for P just for being J.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

STL #117: The Year in Reading (2014)

They say the good is the enemy of the great; given that it’s now March and I haven’t done my last year-in-books retrospective, I’d say the okay is the enemy of the done! As usual I had a lot of trouble narrowing down to 10—it seems the best I can do is to get down to 10 reading “regions.” So here’s a map of my 2014 reading:


1    I started the year with my sister’s big red anthology of Romantic writers (mostly canonical poets). It took six months to work through, but I renewed my appreciation of many old acquaintances and met many new friends to admire (note: that’s a horrible sentence I just wrote). Among those that stood out were Wordsworth (who I read just after and curiously preferred to my old favorite Blake), Byron’s Don Juan, and Hazlitt’s essays (especially the first piece of sports reporting ever, “The Fancy”).
2.    Philip K Dick: The other big book I started at the beginning of the year was The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick put together by Jonathan Lethem and ….,. Hardly light reading, I spent a lot of time flipping from PKD’s journal entries to the notes on the various gnostic mystics and philosophers he evokes. The insight into his thinking change the way I read Androids (which I taught for the last time for the foreseeable future) and sent me to reread The Man in the High Castle and read a pair of his later novels:  A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Dick himself proposes a reading list of his own works that I plan on gradually getting to.  Reading PKD also led me to slight detour through some dystopias (The Slynx, The Circle, 1984, Brave New World, V for Vendetta and Divergent), to LeGuin’s PKD homage Lathe of Heaven, and to the cyberpunk classic Altered Carbon (heavy PKD influence).
3.    China Mievielle’s The City and the City also bears a PKD influence. It stands out enough to get its own entry though. I don’t know why I don’t read more Mievielle.
4.    Wolf in White Van also gets its own spot, though I can’t really think of what else I’d relate it to. Darnielle’s writing style leaves a little to be desired, but his tone is Judas Priest’s “United” from the other side of the worm hole.
5.    Not a big year for graphic narrative, but Derf’s My Friend Dahmer stood out, as did volume 2 of Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, Little Hits.
6.    Jack Kerouac. Hiking in the Cascades reminded me that you can’t fall off a mountain, so I reread Dharma Bums The classic beat novel retains some charm, though the casual sexism is unsettling. Yu could say the same thing about On the Road, which I also reread. I toyed with the idea of systematically reading the Kerouac canon this year, which I might yet do.
7.    Lots of horror this October as usual (thought I did coin the hashtag #spookytimesallthetime).  There’s a John Updike novel about small town upstate New York inside of Peter Straub’s smart mass market Ghost Story. There’s an alien worm race inside of everything in Laird Barron’s The Croning. I realized reading it that the unity I missed stitching together the stories of Barron’s semi-related stories is in fact there—only it’s emerging as part of a much larger, longer game. I also read widely in various Ellen Daltow anthologies—one new discovery being John Langan. There’s also one about a guy who goes to a movie that I haven’t tracked down that I’d like to read again.
8.    I typically want more from fantasy than I get. But I enjoyed the secondary world heist stories in The Lies of Locke Lamorra and its sequels and Kij Johnson’s novella “The Man Who Bridged the Mist,” about a bridge builder, ferryboat captain, and cultural change.
9.    But the best fantasy novel I read last year was Watership Down. It has all of the traditional attributes of a fantasy novel: seers and warriors, a quest, a completely realized language and folklore. It’s a deeply weird book in its ordinariness.

10. I resumed my tour through the Richard Stark Parker books after learning I could request purchases from my library online. As a representative  I’d chooseThe Rare Coin Score: the great title, the memorably swishy foil, the introduction of Claire. But my favorite moment is a car driving by with it’s windows rolled down, rock music spilling out. The world is changing out there around them, but Parker is still planning the perfect heist.

Last to go: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Sunday, March 1, 2015

2014 Q4

Sf&f: Parasite; Divergent, Brave New World, High Castle, Howl’s Moving Castle, Helen and Troy (abandoned); Brave New World; The Slynx
Comics:Promethea (in progress), Radioactive (in progress); My Friend Dahmer
other: The Handle (Stark); Wolf in White Van, The Damsel, The Seventh; Rare Coin Score; Green Eagle Score; Scrum; Books to Die For; The Best of the Best American Mystery Stories

Horror: various short Horror from Years Bests, The Croning, Mayhem; Ghost Story

Saturday, February 28, 2015

2014 Q3

Sf&f: Rogues, Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, V6, Handmaid’s Tale, The Night Circus, Year Zero, Homeland, Altered Carbon; Watership Down; Dragonflight; Republic of Thieves; Scanner Darkly; Transmigration of Timothy A
Comics: V for Vendetta; Nemo: Heart of Ice

other: More Baths, Less Talking (Hornby); On the Road; Dharma Bums; Smarter Than you Think; Dear Committee Members; The Fault in Our Stars; 1984

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