Swamplandia!

So this is a book that got a lot of buzz a few years back. It took me a while to get to it. It took me a while to get through it. I probably took a break from this book four or five times, often for longer than a month. It’s a bit on the longer side, but much so than many other books that took far less time and featured far fewer interruptions.

Russel’s prose writing chops are more than up to the task she sets herself, and the narrative arc provides plenty of juicy plot and well-executed character development. Nonetheless, this book doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. The somewhat fantastical narrative voice means the reader isn’t really sure what the rules of this universe are until the very end of the book, and the conclusion doesn’t mitigate, resolve, or make worthwhile this awkwardness. The shifting perspectives -first person for one character, a close third for another, and perhaps an omniscient third?- are far too similar in voice for their intended effect. It all gets far too messy.

There is some impressive prose writing on display here, and Russel has created a fascinating collection of characters, but the execution, for me, falls flat. I don’t regret reading this book, but I’m not going to go back to it, and I’m not likely to recommend it. I’d certainly be interested in reading other work by the author, however.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

So this book won a shit-ton of prizes. Katherine Boo’s decision to depict strict nonfiction/reporting within a novelistic framework is ballsy as hell and hard to do, but she pulled it off perfectly. There are so many pitfalls in this approach and Boo managed to navigate around them all perfectly. Everyone in here comes off as both a real and living human being and a character, but never to the detriment or exclusion of either of those identities. Her authorial chops within the context of nonfiction were already very well established by the Pulitzer, but the knack she has for long-form narrative is even more impressive.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers deals with the daily realities of living in a Mumbai undercity. These slumdwellers are just as fully realized as the inhabitants of any other piece of Earth-based real estate, but the realities of their situation have forced the potential of their lives into the kind of narrow confines that mirror the actual living conditions. Everyone is on very shaky ground -tragedy abounds in a terrifyingly random way, and people respond to this reality in the best and worse ways that humans are capable of.

I really like the idea of an intersection between novel-form storytelling and investigative journalism. There’s certainly a diverse skill set required to do this sort of thing well -especially in the mode that Boo has presented here- but the payoff is great, and the audience is wide. This kind of book appeals to the kind of policy wonks that aren’t going to be picking up a Milan Kundera novel any time soon, and it appeals to the poets and other artistic types who aren’t really reading, say, The Atlantic. While other instances of creative nonfiction have been just as good -I’m thinking specifically about Kerry Howley’s book Thrown, here- few of them have the kind of mass appeal that Behind the Beautiful Forevers does, nor do they relate such important realities.

If Chins Could Kill -Bruce Campbell

Don’t worry people, I’m still reading lit fic. But sometimes you just need to sit down and hear Bruce Campbell tell a bunch of stories about the ridiculous shit he’s been involved in, because that’s fun. And Campbell has the kind of voice that I don’t mind being around for a few hours. Sure’ you’re not going to get any insights into the nature of humanity, but you’re going to learn some cool shit about mildly interesting things.

I’m a latecomer to the cult movies of Raimi and his ilk, but I certainly enjoy their brand of camp. Campbell’s close association and involvement with the brothers means that this book offers an enjoyable perspective on another kind of good-time media. It’s not the kind of books I want to read all the time, but it’s a fun reprieve from the heavier shit.

Recommendation: Need a palate cleanser? Yeah? Then, yeah.

Just Kids, Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids is touching and well-written. The account of her life with the visual artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a glimpse into a very isolated and very culturally important moment. Their artistic and aesthetic nascence is recounted well and authentically, communicated a kind of existential striving that put them at odds with much of what was around them. While certain aspects of the book felt a bit performative or pretentious, the vast majority of Smith’s writing seems much more concerned with depicting a reality than with depicting the author in the best possible light.

Different modes of writing are separate enough that I’m usually cautious about narrative books written by good songwriters or good standup comics. While the emotional realities are always there, the translation and communication of those realities often requires a skillset that may not be present. Patti Smith clearly has the narrative chops to pull this kind of thing off, and does it well. There is a lot of intention and reflection being distilled into the narrative, less a reliance on anecdotes or filler storytelling.

While my overall impression of the book remains positive, there is a bit of pretension and preciousness in here that isn’t my favorite, as well as a bit more name-dropping than I care for (although most of the name-drop-heavy antecdotes are pretty essential to the narrative, so handling that well seems like a rather titanic task). It’s a hard bit of criticism to sustain, but it’s enough to keep me from recommending this book completely free of any “well, but” riders.

Sarah Vowell’s The Partly Cloudy Patriot

Given recent electoral outcomes, reading essays about American political history probably doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but I found going into This American Life regular Sarah Vowell’s back catalog to be very refreshing. She writes with a casual persona, a conversational tone that communicates her obsessiveness and fascination with both self-awareness and contagious enthusiasm.

The Partly Cloudy Patriot is a celebration of nerdishness, written at a time before that kind of thing had been so widely co-opted to pander and to sell sitcoms and t-shirts. There’s a sense of guilty revelry at play -the delight Vowell clearly feels in immersing herself in the historical remnants of upsetting episodes in history are contextualized but never dismissed. The essays are informative, but couched in a sense of personal experience that keeps them from getting overly dry. I’m a big fan of this particular strategy in nonfiction, especially in travel writing.

I’ve got some conflicting thoughts on the place of essay collections in 2016, in the world of aggregated longform essays and creative nonfiction. One one hand, I feel like my time is better spent casting a wide net, reading a diverse selection of authors writing on a diverse selection of topics. But, for the same reason I like short story collections, I like getting inside and inhabiting one specific writer’s brain over the course of a few small pieces. I’m not sure how much of that is coming from my own writerly inclinations to observe other writers’ voices in depth and how much it has to do with simply valuing an accurate and close reading of somebody else’s lived experience, but there you go.

Blood Meridian

I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian about a month ago, and then went back and listened to the audiobook -the Richard Poe/Recorded Books 2007 version. This was definitely a very good idea, and something I intend to repeat in the future. Blood Meridian is easily the best novel I’ve read this year, and it’s the sort of book that is going to require you to give it a slow and studious read. There’s lots of archaic vocabulary that will need looking up, and a fair bit of untranslated and colloquial Spanish that will need translating (my very limited Spanish got me through about 40% of the non-English dialog in this book, so if you’re a casual speaker or have a bit of a background in the language you’ll probably be fine). This is all on top of McCarthy’s typical absence of conventional punctuation and the distinctive voice that some people have a hard time with. On that subject, Blood Meridian is very violent and very gruesome, so if you are inclined to having a hard time with that kind of thing this is really not a book you’ll want to read.

Blood Meridian is sometimes classified as historical fiction, and while there’s certainly a fair bit of real history going on, that history is more a means to an end than anything in and of itself -this period of violent history is just a very bloody sandbox for McCarthy to play in. It’s far bigger than the historical context in which it is set, and deals with some very fundamental questions in a much more intricate and profound scope than I can communicate well in one of these three-paragraph reading logs. Suffice it to say, the violence and the monologues that define this book are interdependent and intractable, and most important, gorgeously depicted. McCarthy’s prose is always the main selling point, but here it isn’t just the whole show, but defining and working in service of the central ideology of the thing. Blood Meridian isn’t a Novel of Ideas, but its powerful immorality falls neatly in line with Garner’s oft-misunderstood ideas on moral fiction. An aside -this book has been criticized for its depiction of Native Americans and, yeah, certain passages read out of context do look pretty bad, but when read within their context and against the same sorts of passages describing the alleged protagonists, a careful reader will find that McCarthy is very much not taking sides with those advocates of Anglo-Saxon/Western European cultural superiority.

Following my close reading of the novel with an extended listening-to of the excellently produced audiobook was a great way to experience this thing. The feeling of listening and knowing when a spectacular piece of prose is coming your way is great, and having already done my research allowed me to easily follow and immerse myself in both the narrative and the sentence-by-sentence writing, a luxury that also offered me a greater sense of the ideological complexity the book offers its more attentive and obsessive readers. I plan to come back to this book. I’ve found its mythological essence sneaking into some of my own work of late, and that’s a good feeling.

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.