The Passage/The Twelve/City of Mirrors

So… I read a post-apocalyptic trilogy. It’s got vampires in it, or at least an entity similar enough to warrant the nomenclature. I have no regrets. It was fucking fantastic, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Justin Cronin’s pre-apocalypse-vampire credits include an undergrad education at Harvard, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA, a couple of your standard-fair lit-fic novels, and some serious writing prizes. All of the chops that one would expect to go along with that biography are certainly present -the guy writes fucking well. He just seems to have decided to point those chops at telling a very long-form (total page count of the trilogy approaches two thousand) fantasy, all couched in a plausible reality. This isn’t quite fantasy, it isn’t quite science fiction. The narrative will get these books classified as “genre” but there’s none of the rapid-output verbal paunch that seems endemic to even “good” genre fiction.

There are a lot of Steven King comparisons being made, and this is absolutely true. Cronin has created a series with the kind of epic scale and horror elements that King is known for, and a host of minor similarities are present, too. But I would argue that Cronin does King far better than King does. Both the writing and the narrative are tight and seem obsessively polished and worked over. These books fit together perfectly, a self-contained narrative that delivers on all the grandiose promises it makes.

Most impressive to me is the diversity of this series. There are a good dozen different books distilled into these three -your University Memoir, short story sketches of minor players, a technological survivalist adventure, and, of course the horror. All of this praise for thematic diversity has failed to touch on the most impressive aspect: the religious and downright Biblical. This angle gets woven into everything deftly, and the reader isn’t quite sure how much of it ought to be taken at face value -but that’s clearly Cronin’s goal.

Recommendation: Read it. Goddamn. So much fucking fun, so well done.


Consider the Lobster. Please Start Here.

The essays in Consider the Lobster span around thirteen years, and offer thought on the adult film industry celebrating itself, the 2000 primary campaign of John McCain, the sad decline and increasing indefensibility of John Updike’s novelistic output, and a 62-page review of and commentary on an American English usage dictionary. One of the best benchmarks I’ve found for excellent writing is its ability to make me give a shit about something I have not and do not give many shits about -like John McCain’s unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in 2000. All of the writing in here clears that benchmark easily, although I must confess that I’m probably going to be way more into a protracted monologue on Bryan A. Garner’s usage dictionary than most.

Wallace’s nonfiction has always been a favorite of mine -even throughout the years where I was dismissive of his fiction, I always had, at the very least, grudging respect and tractable positivity about essays like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (not in this collection, but the first piece of his that I’d read). The sometimes-cascading footnotes require a lot less mental work for me when found in nonfiction, a reality that reflects solely upon myself and the conventions that I’ve grown accustomed to, but still, customs that many share and do have an effect on the experience of reading. As such, familiarizing oneself with Wallace’s voice via his nonfiction is probably the best way to work your way into his body of work. And if you don’t like this shit, man, you are gonna hate Infinite Jest.

Recommendation: Read it. This is the best starting place I can think of, and if you’ve read other Wallace but haven’t got to Lobster yet, you’ll love it.

Gateway to Paradise Revisited, and Further Notes

I recently had a conversation with someone more familiar with this book than myself, and it brought up a few things that I didn’t really address -or that I addressed badly- in my original reading log. As such, I want to set the record straight. This project is, and will continue to be, a series of rough drafts, and as such I did not want to edit the original entry (which can be found here: https://seanvansickel.com/2016/04/16/matthew-vollmers-gateway-to-paradise/).

The main complaint I had about Gateway to Paradise was that I felt it was timestamped. In addition to the aforementioned conversation, I have re-read the book, and while I still feel it falls short of his other work, my complaints were a bit too generalized. I had not realized this, but almost all of my irritations at the “ephemera” in this collection were centered on one story, “The Visiting Writer”. Vollmer references Malaysia Airlines flight 370, (the missing plane that dominated CNN in 2014) The Walking Dead, (”I slid out my phone and texted my wife, who, at this hour, would no doubt be curled up in bed, binge-watching a show that followed the survivors of a zombie apocalypse”)and Instagram (“…my eleven-year-old daughter’s recent obsession with a photo-sharing social media app, and that she now spent the majority of her free time taking pictures of herself wearing sunglasses or of the strawberry sandwich cookie she was about to ‘crush’ or simply posting kissy-face Emojis to a variety of boys’ comment streams…”). This is a story that I actually found very memorable, very good both as a whole and with regard to specific passages that jumped out and grabbed me. I found this story (and to a very slightly lesser extent, “Probation”) to be the strongest and most memorable story in the collection, yet the things that irritated me most about this book were all within my favorite story. This seems to tie in with my larger experience with the text -I’m going to be most critical of the things that interfere in any way with the kind of writing I enjoy most. When I go into a book written by an author I love, I’m going to dig out any and all irritations, especially in those stories or sections I enjoy most.

This brings me to an evaluation of the methodology of my way of logging my reading experiences. As longtime readers know, I always keep these reading logs to three paragraphs, and I tend to refrain from quoting or referencing the text in question. I want to communicate the general experience of the text to my readers, rather than analyze the particulars. I love literary criticism and analysis, but that isn’t what this project is for. I think there is value in this kind of general and quickly digested approach, (and I’ve gotten comments and messages to that end) but it is going to leave a lot of important information out. So, to clarify, these writings are not reviews. They are not an in-depth examination of a text. They are recollections and impressions, intentionally recorded at a distance from the source material. There is a different kind of truth to be found in these sorts of observations, and I find it to be worth pursuing.

The Guardian’s “The Counted,” Police Brutality, and Big News Close to Home


British newspaper The Guardian has been running a series of reports into police violence in America, and as part of that project, they produced one of the best pieces of traditional investigative journalism that I’d seen in a long time -a five-part multimedia report called “The County” that deals with my hometown, Kern County, specifically.

Kern County has the highest rate of citizens killed by police in the entire United States, as well as a horrific track record of internal corruption, sexual assault/abuse, sexism, and all sorts of other unsavory qualities. “The County” does an exceptional job digging into the particulars of this, as well as contextualizing it all within both the regional realities and the larger narrative of police abuse in the US.

Recommendation: Read it! Links are provided -go, go, go!


Infinite Jest… I think I can recommend this book? Depending on who is asking?

Since barrels of academic/Internet ink have already been spilled in discussion of Infinite Jest, I’ll keep it brief. This is a long book, and many sections of it are damn difficult to read. It also doesn’t really make much sense until you are well over 300 pages in, which is definitely a problem for some people. But I’m not a fan of a lot of the popular narrative that seems to have risen up around this book, the narrative that frames reading the damn thing as if it were some sort of feat of athletic prowess, trained and sweat and bled for. It’s just a damn book. It’s a great book and it’s going to take your full attention, but for Chrissake it’s not a goddamn marathon.

It’s also the nearest thing to a perfectly unique narrative voice that has come into existence in the past 30 years. The fact that Wallace manages this without it coming across as hopelessly affected is damn impressive, and the fact that this voice not only works in such a massive piece of wide-cast prose, but is the very thing that ties it all together… that’s another step up. I struggle to classify what exactly the novel is, but I can’t even decide where it stands in relation to a defined for like magical realism (Infinite Jest is nothing like magical realism except for the ways it is like magical realism). I’ve got no faith in my abilities to describe or classify.

Which brings me to the big questions -would I recommend this book to a friend? I certainly loved reading it, especially once I hit my stride. If you are a person who loves writing, who loves words and the interesting things people do with them, and if you are a patient person, I strongly believe that you too might also enjoy this book. There’s certainly nothing else out there quite like it. But can I recommend it? I’m still not sure. And I think some degree of intrinsic motivation must exist on the part of the reader, or they’ll never get through those first 300 pages. But goddamn, it’s worth getting through those first 300 pages.

Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”

Steinbeck’s prose has never been -for me, at least- so strong a thing as to recommend his writing to me in and of itself. Fortunately, the man is a compelling teller of stories. His characters are often marginalized, the victims of an institutionalized discrimination that leaves them to struggle heroically, but helplessly, against the forces of their doom. Because of the markedly higher stakes, I’ve always found myself drawn to the well-told stories of the disenfranchised. “Of Mice and Men” was published in 1937 -obviously a work that far predates literary favored sons like Denis Johnson and Raymond Carver. Perhaps Steinbeck is glanced over in more prestigious literary circles in this regard for the sin of being incredibly common on high school required reading lists?

Regardless, I loved reading this book. I had somehow missed out on it in high school myself (although I’m certain Young Sean would have loved it) but reading it now, as an adult with formal education in literature and a hell of a lot of damn good books behind me is an equally rewarding experience. I felt the same way about reading Moby-Dick for the first time last year. “Of Mice and Men” is not dependent upon the green-reading nature of an indentured teenaged audience -it’s a powerful and enduring work. Neither is it dependent on plot and surprise -I knew the events of the story before reading it and I felt my reading experience was improved for it (but I’m not really a “spoiler guy” so take that with a grain of salt if you tend to get personally invested in your clean mental pallette).

Recommendation: Read it. Read it again if it’s been a few years. It will be a short and enjoyable revisit.