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.


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.

On Reading and Taking Breaks

cartoon me

I’m currently reading David Foster Wallace’s comically weighty novel “Infinite Jest’. Since the only thing more sanctimonious than a 25-year-old white guy reading Infinite Jest is a 25-year-old white guy writing/blogging about reading Infinite Jest, I’m going to divert this into an examination of my process of reading, post-haste (which only seems to be anything other than a narcissistic and intellectually navel-gazing activity by virtue of the other alternative, I think).

I take breaks when reading books. Often. Especially when it’s a challenging read. I put down Kundera’s massive essay ‘Testaments Betrayed’ for nearly three years (when that happens, one will absolutely be doing some re-reading -not necessarily recommended, but hey, it has worked for me, so…) Perhaps a more productive example would be my reading of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Crossing’. McCarthy has a very singular voice, and he employs dense, lyrical prose that reads very slowly. At just under 500 pages, my reading of The Crossing was well-served by my short detour into some shorter and easier-to-digest reads, like Marc Maron’s funny and quick ‘Attempting Normal’. It allowed me to come back to McCarthy a week or so later with new energy and a fresh hunger.

This may be a result of my nascent and moldable brain watching too many YouTube videos in 2008, or it may be my moderate dyslexia setting some hard limits on how much of a certain kind of input is capable of being processed at full capacity. I don’t know. I do know that I have the best retention and the most original thoughts about a piece of work when I’ve reading 4-8 different things all at once, juggling fiction with nonfiction, highbrow and low culture, with some lit mags and a bit of genre thrown in. This seems reasonable to me.

Reading Log: The Month of May



11 books down in 5/15. Literature in translation, some classics, some light/funny work, assorted miscellanea, and a couple of lit mags (Thrice has officially hooked me). It was a good month.

Best Book: Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” -lots of fun, classic genre fiction at its best.

Worst Book: Dave Eggers’s “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. Well, maybe not the worst, (I can’t argue that it’s badly written) but certainly the most annoying and least rewarding. A longer review is forthcoming…

Visit Scenic

Reading Log: Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There

My girlfriend picked this up, read it in a day or two, then passed it on to me. I’d never heard of it (or seen the Academy Award-winning movie) and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. It’s 140 pages, but an incredibly easy and short read that wouldn’t be difficult to finish in a single day. I was fortunate enough to go into it knowing only that it was in some way a satire of life in the 60s, and it’s always refreshing (and rather rare) to begin reading something in near-total ignorance.

I understand how this book became a film. It’s extremely cinematic and plotted out simply, in distinct scenes. The prose is understated, but very good, getting out of the way and communicating everything we need to know with brevity and precision. It all flows so incredibly quickly; even though the entire book remains firmly in the realm of satire it never even begins to approach the limits of credulity -no easy task. Kosinski plays with the line between true idiotic simple-mindedness and the affected simplicity of the powerful and articulate (himself included, perhaps). Minimalism can be an obfuscation, rather than a paring-away into revelation. This ties in with his pervasive meditation on the nature of the self as an image of oneself- distinct as a character, made possible by the advent and mass dissemination of television.

It’s a damn good book, and it’s just as relevant now as it was in 1970. Give it a read.


Being There
by Jerzy N. Kosinski

2014 Book List and Best of 2014’s Reading

These are the books I’ve read this year.


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I’m afraid this list pulls the curtain aside; there are a few books you can see I’ve read but haven’t written about on this blog (also there is no order to their sequence whatsoever). Oh well. The virtues of transparency and all that.


Best Novel: Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. A compelling novel of ideas, told in a masterful authorial voice with a wide range and a marvelous timbre. Honorable Mention: Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

Best Short Story Collection: Thom Jones’s The Pugilist at Rest. Wonderful range of stories balanced with overarching themes and recurring characters, all with a driving intensity.  Honorable Mention: Annie Proulx’s Close Range.

Best New/Contemporary: John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van. Engrossing and affecting. It’s a disturbing read that leaves you thinking about why it throws you off so much.

Best Work in Translation: Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, but since I can’t pick it twice, his essay, Testaments Betrayed.

Best Play: Eugene O’Neill’s  Long Day’s Journey into Night. Unrivaled as far as sheer emotional weight and a powerful depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics.

Best Nonfiction: John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. Beautifully composed and insightful. Made me want to put in the hours at a keyboard.

Worst Book of the Year: Jon Stewart’s Naked Pictures of Famous People. What the fuck is this phoned-in discount Dave Barry shit, Jon? You’re better than this…

Reading Log: The Unbearable Lightness of Being -Milan Kundera


Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera is a man of ideas. His essay Testaments Betrayed (an essay in 9 parts, weighing in at 280 pages) is the most conceptually dense piece of writing I’ve ever experienced. Unbearable Lightness isn’t far behind, but it’s infinitely more engaging. Kundera has such a light-touch mastery of the novel that there is no jarring dissonance when he leaves his characters behind to address some philosophical tangent or directly breaks the fourth wall. It’s a novel of ideas, with characters that exist only to frame the questions Kundera wants to ask. It’s a testament to his skill that his artifices don’t feel the least bit artificial. Thomas or Sabina are particular and real enough that one can’t help getting invested, and their situations add genuine urgency to the ideas being put forth.

The novel is somewhat less than exactly chronological and divided into its seven parts more by theme than by the passing of time. The focal idea is extrapolated out of the nature of binary opposition (lightness and weight, good and evil, weakness and strength) and remains present throughout, but each section deals with another set of ideas, from the personal psychology of the Teresa section to the hilarious inspection of our inescapable reduction to kitsch in Part 6. Kundera’s questioning is both affecting and effective. We laugh at the journalist who blows himself up on a landmine by stepping off the path to photograph a starlet on a political protest march in Cambodia, then Kundera shows how similar our own existence is to such absurdity a page later.

There’s a serious thematic overlap between this novel and Testaments Betrayed, but as much as I love his essay there’s something about the nature of the novel that allows this kind of inquisition to come across more palpably. It’s less easy to become cognitively saturated within the framework of narrative (although I fully admit the possibility that my brain speaks “story” more fluently than philosophy and that I need a narrative crutch to comfortably address the kind of ideas Kundera brings up). Unbearable Lightness functions flawlessly both as a novel of ideas and a novel of characters. It’s the best work in translation I’ve read in my entire life and (sorry, John Darnielle) it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Get a copy and read it as soon as humanly possible.