Category Archives: book reports

Recent Reading

The Good Soldier Schweik— I bought a copy at a used bookstore on our recent trip to Virginia/DC, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s sort of a World War I classic that’s fallen off the radar about a Czech soldier who’s basically an idiot who not so stupidly manages to avoid ever making it into combat. SchweikThe novel starts in Prague, and weirdly, the humor reminded me of Kafka, and there’s probably a thesis in comparing Schweik and K. from The Castle; where K. employs all the intelligence at his disposal in struggling against a vast, almost metaphysical bureaucracy to gain admittence to the caslte, Schweik uses his idiotic blank grin and the deep incompetence of the Austrian army bureaucracy to constantly frustrate their efforts to get him to the front. Seems like it’s often called an anti-war novel, and the novel does preach at times, but Schweik’s honest idiocy seems impervious to all kinds of cant, and he seems like as basic and original a comedic character as Don Quixote. It ends abruptly when the author died of TB.

The Last Tycoon— We got this in our great plundering of Terri’s parents’ book and record collection last weekend and I blew through it in a couple of evenings. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final novel (which ends abruptly when the author died of a heart attack) about a movie tycoon. Seems patterned after any number of film tycoons, but the one that comes to mind most to me is Irving Thalberg. It’s pretty uneven at times, and you suspect that it would have been seriously rewritten and cleaned up a lot once it was finished. But that in itself is part of the charm; the edition I read had author’s notes and outlines of what Fitzgerald expected to happen, so you get the interesting task of finishing the novel for yourself, as well as an interesting vivisection of a novel in progress. The main character Stahr is a workaholic producer who, while driven into the future out of dissatisfaction with his past a la Gatsby, seems to genuinely love his work, and the scenes where he is prodding his writers and directors to work creatively are alone unlike anything I’ve read elsewhere and are themselves worth the price of admission.

I Will Soon Be Invincible by Austin Grossman — a friend recommended this novel about superheroes and supervillains that are all too human. I liked it a lot (I blew through it it last night and this morning), but if you’ve seen The Incredibles, imagine it as novel, make it slightly moodier and less cartoony, and you’ve got the idea.

Book Report: John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes

I picked this up at a bookshop in Berlin for reading material, since I was sort of out of reading material, and it seemed like a good read. It was pretty entertaining. It was supposed to be an autobiography, though the final 50% or so was finished by his wife after Peel’s death in 2005.

I won’t bother going into who he was, that is what wikipedia is for.

What I came away feeling was that there’s just not a place in the current media universe for someone like that. Despite how little choice we get from the tepid, bland mediocrity of coast-to-coast ClearChannel and Infinity stations, despite how much infinite and overwhelming variety we get from the internet, there’s nobody out there who has a pulpit, and an audience big enough to make the pulpit credible, where they can challenge people to listen to things they might not otherwise have listened to. You can get more of what you already know, you can spend all your time trying to find new things on your own, or you can listen to the same 10 songs everybody else is listening to.

Also, he was an extremely clever writer; was not surprised to hear him say that he admired Wodehouse.

Book Report: Gun, With Occasional Music (with bonus blather about Amnesia Moon, and with homework)

This weekend I read Gun, With Occasional Music, one of Jonathan Lethem’s genre fiction novels, before he got all award-winning and respectable. It doesn’t just mimic one genre, it’s both a Raymond Chander detective novel as well as a dystopian science fiction novel. It’s pretty entertaining, but I found it much less substantial than than Amnesia Moon, which was published the following year.

The structure, style, dialogue, and overall worldview couldn’t be a bigger Chandler rip-off without actually just calling the hero “Phillip Marlowe” (nb, see Lethem on plagarism). Except that that the actual mystery wasn’t that good; the clues were clunky enough that I had it figured out halfway through, and I’m pretty dense when it comes to mysteries, guessing right up to the end.

I thought the technique of setting the first chunk of the novel in the future, having a bunch of time elapse, and then setting the second chunk six years later was an effective technique, giving this science-fiction-within-science-fiction effect. (I don’t read much sci-fi, so maybe it’s actually a hackneyed idiom that’s just new to me).

One small-ish detail late in the book resonated with me. In the novel, the future police state encourages heavy drug use to keep the populace under control, and the standard issue mixture is largely composed of “Forgettol” (which does what it sounds like). But memory is occasionally necessary, so people have these small devices, which they refer to when they need to remember something. The devices speak in the person’s own voice, but give a notably rosy version of past events. The main character thinks

I was beginning to get it. Memory was permissible when it was externalized, and rigorously edited. That left you with more room in your head for the latest pop tune— which was sure to be coming out of the nearest water fountain or cigarette machine.

It hit home because I’ve sort of come to depend on this blog to actually remember when and what happened in my life. But at the same it’s such a tiny sliver of the whole story: I don’t get it all down from a lack of gumption or time to write, or I intentionally edit out things because they’re about other people or I just don’t want anybody to see it or I don’t want my account to live beyond my ability to control it. Not to mention the inherent limitations of language and medium: the Tao that can be blogged is not the eternal Tao.

Anyway…. the novel was published in 1994, well before blogs and digital cameras and cheap tiny video cameras and infinite storage and the Internet (yeah, it existed, but you couldn’t depend on it to find almost anything you wanted to know). So it struck me as pretty prescient and disturbing— people with no on-board memory are a pretty pathetic lot. (And yeah, it’s a dystopian reductio ad absurdum, and no, things will probably never go to that extreme, but the possibility is worth considering if only to galvanize the feeling that things shouldn’t go to that extreme).

As I mentioned earlier, while Gun, With Occasional Music is pretty entertaining, I don’t think it’s nearly as good as Amnesia Moon. Part of why I love Amnesia Moon is that it rips off Philip K. Dick, even down to the way that the premise seems to turn inside out after almost every chapter as in the better Dick novels. What really knocks me out about it is that it conveys things that I just can’t imagine being conveyed nearly as beautifully or precisely or convincingly in anything other than a science fiction novel. And it’s not some bogus crap about aliens or robots or New World Orders: I think he’s talking about things that are central to the human experience and timeless, and paradoxically also completely of the zeitgeist.

Anything else that I have to say will sound even stupider unless you’ve read it. So go, read it, and come back and let me know when you have, and then we can talk about it. OK?

Book Report: Black Swan Green

You know, the virtues of David Mitchell’s most recent novel are almost unreviewable, and it’s because of the reviews that I put off reading it for almost a year. The Globe reviewin particular put me off (“Jason Taylor, 13, is a Holden Caulfield for the Margaret Thatcher era.” GAG). I just didn’t see why I had to spend more of the finite minutes of my life reading another coming of age story about a sensitive, artistic small-town youth, despite how utterly taken I was with both Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten. (Have yet to read Number Nine Dream).

It’s too bad, because it really does avoid almost all of the perils of cliché that the premise holds. But again, it’s almost impossible to talk about it without it sounding like it’s the most awful, clichéd crap. I think the best I can do is to say that it really reads like Mitchell wrote it without ever having absorbed anything else in the genre. Yet it feels somewhat wrong to assume that it’s all autobiographical drawn-from-life stuff, either.

All I can surmise is that much of the material has been sitting in Mitchell’s files for years, and with a few heavily praised and unquestionably non-autobiographical novels with plenty of pomo pyrotechnics under his belt, he felt safe enough to publish this without fear of being pigeonholed as an autobiographical writer of coming of age stories.

And if you’ve been put off by Mitchell’s pomo pyrotechnics in the past (I’m talking to you, Terri Wise), I’ll vouch that there is almost none of that here. Though, for those of you who enjoy that kind of thing, the rather stunning appearance of one of the characters from Cloud Atlas alone is worth the price of admission.

Book Report: Mash Goes To Maine

This is probably the most junk-food book I read in a while. I got it when we went to the AAUW book sale in State College. I actually goofed and meant to get the copy of MASH.

The main thing I wanted to point out was, as someone who grew up watching the preachy 70′s TV show, it was surprising to see how the book version of Hawkeye is pretty racist and sexist. He clings to his small-town Maine outlook, and he doesn’t seem to have much moral agenda beyond being a good doctor and having a good time.

Some parts are pretty good, but overall it was a little forced and it was never really well written. I read it in about 3 hours, and it was fairly entertaining, but I still felt like I could feel some brain cells dying.

Book Report: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

So, I actually read I Am Alive and You Are Dead last fall, and I wanted to see what I wrote about it, and I wrote nothing about it, so I’m writing the report now. Did I really write nothing about it? Guess not.

I wanted a biography of Philip K. Dick, because I was curious how much of some of the details of his last three books were biographical. The answer to that question is both more and less than I thought, which is about what I expected. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is really almost not science fiction at all, it’s really more a portrait of Berkeley and the wacky spiritual quests of its overeducated denizens, which are often painfully transparently motivated by their inability to deal with their personal relationships. I was especially curious to see if the Episcopal bishop (who sort of reminded me of someone who would have been in my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s crowd) was based on a real person, and he was, sort of.

Anyway, it confirmed a lot of what I had guessed. Dick was a dick, especially to his wives. He was really crazy, though at times it seems almost willfully so. Reading it kind of got me over him, which I was also sort of hoping to do. I still want to get around to reading The Man In The High Castle, but it might be a while.

The author only frothed into raving fandom intermittently, but did seem to write the book as an excuse to write little expositions on his favorite novels. I guess that’s not uncommon in biography, but still, I think it was a little annoying.

Book Report: Persepolis

I’m not sure where to start on this one other than to say go buy it and read it now. (I know I’m probably years behind the curve on this discovery, but nonetheless…) Or see if I’ve taken it back to the library and get it from there.

It’s just perfect in so many ways.

It really plays to the strengths of the graphic novel medium: the drawings are simple black and white drawings, but that just seems to let the nuance and depth of the story and its telling come out.

It not only puts a very personal and human face on what growing up in Iran in the 70′s and 80′s must have been like, but it also was very illuminating on a lot of political and historical points that I didn’t really understand. And the medium again helps out with this: I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of a more prosaic or direct treatment of the subject. The fact that it’s a comic book makes it seem like it’s going down easier, but then it twists and gets all complicated and tragic and funny, all at the same time.

It’s also as good a portrayal of a revolution as I’ve read. I can imagine a great college English course on “literature of the revolution” featuring Persepolis, Doctor Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities, Marat/Sade, The Master and Margarita, and… others? I feel like I’m definitely missing something from various Central American revolutions. It portrays that process where temporary upheavals become normal and permanent, as one aspect of life after the other is turned on its head.

Anyway, as we’re rapidly approaching a point where something’s going to have to give in the current situation with Iran, I can’t imagine a better time to get a more complicated and realistic perspective of the country as more than a bunch of religious nuts with nuclear aspirations.

Book Report: In Cold Blood

After we went to see Capote a couple of months ago, I was curious to pick up In Cold Blood. Up until then, I had little inclination to read it. The film focused on Truman Capote’s process in writing it, and his actual involvement in the outcome of the events he was writing about (e.g. going so far as to get the killers legal help). So I expected at least a little mention of himself in the book. Not so. There is one mention of “a journalist” who I suspect was actually Capote, and one other mention of “a woman journalist” who I suspect was Harper Lee. And that was it.

So I think the film did do some service in bringing his actual implication to light. But by the same token, I think the film also falls into much the same trap. It portrays everything in it as a simple fact. Not only does it provide no insight into the research it took to make it, it simply treats its own varnished surface as if it was reality, not a reenactment at all. (Because of this, I now sort of want to read Capote, the book upon which the film was based, though I think I may be all caput on Capote for the moment.)

Anyway, such varnish is the substance of In Cold Blood. True, it is clearly the product of painstaking research, done with a great deal of sympathy. In my favorite moments, Capote completely throws himself into minor or passing characters. They’re ordinary people who don’t usually get interviewed or researched, and turn out to be fascinating on examination. But, you never get that they were interviewed or researched. You just get the finished product, perfectly staged so that you never see back into the wings.

I know that’s part of the point; he did call it a non-fiction novel. But it  somehow doesn’t sit quite so well with me. I’ve thought about it since, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why. On one hand, I have to admit that I can’t imagine it being so compelling if it was straight non-fiction. I’ve tried to read Studs Terkel before, because I was intrigued with the idea of someone just interviewing everyday people and getting their stories down in what feels like their own language. But somehow I never manage to get very far; part of me finds the concept interesting and the execution pretty faultless, yet the finished product fails to hold my interest. On the other hand, I’ve long thought that simple fabrication doesn’t make for compelling fiction. So I’m on board with the idea of making a novel out of real people and real events. But somehow it feels wrong that there is no warning label with that omniscient voice.

Nonetheless, it was a terrific and horrible story, and it’s definitely worth the read. And it’s another case of Truman Capote spurring me on to think heavily about the mystery of the real and the fake.

Book Report: The Risk Pool

So, I’m very overdue in writing any of the book reports I promised. I’ve been too busy either reading or working on my webbified Exquisite Corpse (yes, that’s back in the works). So I will begin to rectify.

The first book of the year, back at the beginning of January, was Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve probably talked a lot about Russo here, but it’s good stuff. This one was worth reading, but there’s not much in it that I hadn’t already encountered in Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool, or to a lesser extent, Empire Falls, whether in setting, plot, character, style, subject matter. I’m not really complaining, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a starting point, or if you aren’t sure you want to read everything. I’d start with Empire Falls or maybe Straight Man or Nobody’s Fool.

They all take place in some small manufacturing town that’s seen better days; there’s a lot of drinking of cheap beer in local bars; there’s usually a kid or two who have escaped and gone to college and gotten out; there’s some trash-talking; there’s a lot that might come off as melodrama if it weren’t done so well. They’re all also really funny. One of the things I most admire is Russo’s ability to take something that’s almost unbearably well-trodden in literature (say, the later-middle-aged English professor who’s had writer’s block since his first book was published, as in Straight Man) and to somehow make all of it seem fresh, like no one’s ever written about it before. I think it’s a rare but useful feat to not shy away from the obvious yet be totally original. As much as we all love to cling to our uniqueness, the truth of the matter is that most of the things that are really important to us have already been experienced by others, often millions of others. To not examine it, or cherish it, or share it, just because it’s been done before seems like a big mistake to me. And while a lot of writers blather about finding wonderful things in the ordinary, a lot of that kind of writing comes off to me as more pretentious than actual pretense.

Then again, maybe I just like it so much because the milieu Russo writes about is one that’s very familiar to me.

Book Report: What the Dormouse Said


What the Dormouse Said: How the 60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer by John Markoff

I was going to wait for softcover on this one, but when I saw it used on Amazon for $5, I went for it.
I’ve actually thought the world was long overdue for a book devoted to this topic. Any history of Silicon Valley or Xerox PARC ends up touching on it. But I think there’s something worth exploring about how the culture of the Bay Area in the 60′s and 70′s led to a lot of ideas in computing that totally changed the world in a way that East Coast computing, which had somewhat of a head start in the 40′s – 60′s, did not.

This book has lots of good anecdotes, and I learned a thing or two (did you know that Stewart Brand ran one of the video cameras at Douglas Englebart’s famous Demo?). But I still might be waiting for the definitive book on the topic. Despite the book’s ambitious subtitle, the introduction immediately sets expectations downwards by saying that it’s not actually going to actually try to explain exactly how the counterculture shaped the personal computer or offer a comprehensive history, but to merely relate some anecdotes.

Fair enough, but if it’s going to be anecdotal, it would have been much better organized as, say, anecdotes. Instead, its adherence to chronological order (with arbitrary chapter breaks) is so stringent that it’s extremely difficult to follow any individual story lines. New people will be introduced, who have no connection to the previous paragraphs, who have no connection to the following paragraphs, but they did something that happened at the same time, so they are just stuck in there.