Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Little Mary Sunshine

Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill

There's a line in High Fidelity, "It's not who you are, it's what you like." It's strange to think that in a book, or in life, you encounter someone wearing a trench coat or reading Bust magazine, or listening to Phil Collins, and expect that to tell you something about them.

Mary Gaitskill doesn't realy operate this way. As a result, you wind up with snowflake sweater-wearing junkies and shy, homely masochists, which takes a minute or two to wrap your head around. She doesn't do this in a Desperate Housewives kind of way that seeks to uncover the seedy underbelly of normal domesticity. Instead, she's interested in the complexity of human desire, and the way that it becomes obsessive, violent, and/or isolating. Not the way it can become these things... the way it does.

The James Spader/Maggie Gyllenhaal film, Secretary, is loosely adapted from a story of the same title in this collection. Reportedly, Gaitskill was not at all pleased by the adaptation - she thought it was too cute and sweet. Compared to the story itself, boy howdy, it is; however, I think she's a little too hard on the film. I liked the sweetness, and thought the film needed it. But you will find no such sweetness in Gaitskill's stories.

I wouldn't want to read her everyday, but sometimes it's interesting to wallow around in the dark places of the human psyche, and hardly anyone is better at writing about it. Her stories have a kind of voyeuristic appeal that allows readers to be interested in her world and her characters without necessarily being able to relate to them or even understand them.

She's not for everyone - I think a good litmus test for determining whether you can finish a Mary Gaitskill book is Six Feet Under. If you find this show horrifying and depraved on a fairly regular basis, best to avoid her.

If you like...: the matter-of-factness of Joan Didion or the urban nightmares of Bret Easton Ellis (but without the sensationalism), this book is for you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Another Selection from My Desert Island Reading List

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

To be "fifth business" is to be neither hero nor villain nor even in the center of things, but nevertheless, to be the character upon which all things hinge. The fifth business in this epistolary novel is Dunstan Ramsay, a retired school principal who appears far less interesting than he actually is.

The first book in Davies' Deptford Trilogy, just about everything that happens in the trilogy spirals out from a snowball that hits the Baptist minister's frail, pregnant wife in the head, and causes her to go into labor. The snowball is thrown by Percy Boyd Staunton, intended for Ramsay, and the premature child delivered by Mary Dempster is named Paul. The three characters go their separate ways, but their fates are entwined from the moment Percy throws the snowball.

Like Ramsay, Davies was an educator, but he was also an actor, publisher, playwright, scholar, and probably also one of the ten smartest, coolest people to live in the 20th century. When you finish reading a Robertson Davies novel, you realize that without once being distracted from the totally killer plot, you have inadvertently learned about art forgery, the history of magic, Catholic saints, or Jungian analysis. The man's interests and aptitudes knew no bounds.

If you liked...: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving or The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, this book is for you.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Anybody Want to Start a Book Club?

For the past few months, I've been really wanting to start a book club. However, I didn't want it to turn into this, and I didn't want to have to plan meeting times and stuff.

Then yesterday, my friend, Shannon, pointed out that I could just have a book club on my blog. I thought this was pure genius. I haven't thought out the logistics too thoroughly, but I figured we could take turns picking books and discuss about one a month.

So, if you're interested either comment here or email me at memccoy at gmail dot com, and I will set up a new blog for it. Anyone is welcome - it doesn't matter to me if I know you personally or not. If you want first dibs on pickin', just call it.

Also, if you have any suggestions for a name, let me know. As evidenced by my entirely un-Googlable blog title, I am not much good at coming up with them.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mary Meets the Spacemen

Brady here.

Science fiction in general gets kind of a bad rap. Sure, it's good for summer blockbusters and tv, if it's been gussied up with pretty people and lots of explosions, but most literary critics treat sci-fi like...well, like the cool kids in high school treat the Babylon 5 fans that speak Klingon at lunch.

So, the other day Mary and I were talking about books, and I asked her if she had ever read any science fiction. None, she says. Mary reads a lot of books. Like, five at a time, weekly. She's probably read ten thousand books (seriously). And not one example of science or "speculative" fiction, with the predictable "high school reading list" exemptions: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984.

This is a shame, and I immediately shoved Issac Asimov's The Caves of Steel in her face and refused to take it away until she read it and agreed to review it here. (It's got detectives in it, which helped.) So without further ado, here's our illustrious blogmistress:

MM: For the record, I agreed to this series of sci-fi posts mostly because Brady just would not let it go. Finally, I'm like, "Okay, give me an Asimov book or whatever, and I will read it because I love you and because it will probably make you stop bugging me."

At first, I was not impressed. Asimov's vision of the future in this book looks a little something like the Jetsons, if the Jetsons were Morlocks. But then, Asimov won me over with a simple little passage. Our hero does something, a something so insignificant that it's practically a nothing, that utterly crushes his wife. He doesn't mean to, consciously at least, and they stay happily married and all, but never so happily as they were. It's a nice touch. I was tentatively intrigued.

BP: I'll say this. Asimov's strengths are not those of the prose stylist. When it comes to putting sentences together, he's as dry as Mars in summer. Sometimes his characters take a while to round out, and some of them never do. But Asimov's real secret weapon - along with the occasional nice touches like the one Mary mentions - are his ideas, which are big.

Some plots are driven by the characters, and some narratives are driven by the plot. Asimov's stories are driven by ideas. In The Caves of Steel, half the fun is seeing the broad strokes of what has become of humanity: living underground, having abolished anything like real privacy while retaining vaguely American middle-class mores, increasingly lifelike robots taking retail jobs away from humans, farming yeast to feed the teeming masses, and living in constant fear of being "declassified" and thus spending the rest of your life sleeping in the community barracks. Oh, and everyone is deeply agoraphobic.

MM: The city dwellers are also highly xenophobic. In addition to the anti-robot sentiment - a near riot breaks out at a shoe store that has just leased robot shoe salesmen - the city dwellers also hate the Spacers, the humans who were sent out to colonize the outer planets. The Spacers maintain an outpost on Earth, wear noseplugs when they come into contact with city folk, and decontaminate themselves after associating with them. This is, of course, perceived as a slight.

A Spacer is murdered at the outpost, most likely by city folk, and our hero - Elijah Bailey, a detective with the NYPD - is enlisted to solve the crime, and partnered with a Spacer robot for the job.

BP:Poor Elijah has a lot to deal with. His witnesses are convinced he carries the plague, his new partner is a robot who was built by the murder victim to look exactly like the murder victim, and the first time he stages a "parlour scene" to lay out exactly whodunit and solve the case, he accuses the one person who absolutely could not have had anything to do with it. In front of his own boss, who is not amused. If Elijah can't solve the case, it's declassification for him and his family.

Oh, and the future of space colonization kind of depends on him solving the thing, as the Spacers are in a position to quarantine, if not destroy, the Earth if the killer can't be found.

The book does start a little slow, but picks up steam as Elijah and R.(Robot) Daneel Olivaw track down the killer, venturing out into the city. We're treated to radical blocs of yeast farmers, "man-jams" on moving highways where commuters stand still while the road under them moves at forty-five miles per hour, and status heirarchies based on things like being allowed to have your own kitchen instead of using the community cafeteria.

I like to call this stuff "social science fiction," because what's really interesting here isn't the technology, but the changes in everyday life. Overcrowding is, to our hero, the "warm, living pulsation of the city" while actual motorways, deserted and only used for emergency vehicles and the like, are miles of "indecent emptiness" that depress Elijah.

And of course, on top of all the speculative fiction you get a murder mystery: two genres for the price of one.

MM: It occurs to me that science fiction is really not so different from other fiction, except for the kind of imagination that writers employ to carry it off. There's the kind of imagination that allows Jonathan Franzen to convey a character's dementia or Jeffrey Eugenides to create an incestuous family saga, and then there's the kind of imagination that gives you robots in a yeast-eating dystopia.

I think I like that kind of imagination. It takes itself very seriously at the same time it throws everything we know to be true and real and serious over the wall, and sometimes, into outer space. When you think about it, that's kind of cool.

Asimov: 1
Mary's Preconceived Notions: 0

Next time... Ender's Game.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"High School is the Penalty for Transgressions Yet to Be Specified"

King Dork by Frank Portman

The funny thing about King Dork is that it unmasks once and for all the Catcher cult (i.e. adults who came of age in the 1960s and are forever foisting Catcher in the Rye onto new generations, oblivious to its annoyingness and use of ridiculous phrases like 'give her the time'), and in the process of doing so, creates a cult of its own.

Ordinarily snarky and difficult to impress reviewers have been all but offering to have Frank Portman's babies over King Dork.

But, you know, they're not wrong. It's pretty awesome. You've got these two loser guys who are in a band. Except it's the kind of band where you make up the name and album covers and everyone's band names and song titles, but never actually, you know, buy a guitar. Then there are a bunch of mysteries. Like the murder/accidental death/suicide of the narrator's father, the answer to which is surely hidden in the notes scrawled in the margins of an old copy of Catcher in the Rye. Or the fake-mod girl who makes out with our hero at a party, only to disappear from the face of the earth, if she ever existed at all.

It's also one of the few novels I've read that contains an appendix and a glossary, which are, by themselves, worth the price of admission. Sample definitions:

"bubblegum (BOOB le-GYOOM): this is, in the end, more or less the Lord's music."

"Thin Lizzy (TEEN LEZ-ie): Ireland's greatest contribution to Western civilization. The ninth-greatest rock and roll band of all time."

So anyway, if you liked... Rock Star, Superstar by Blake Nelson or if you liked Catcher in the Rye when you were 15, then read it again at 21 and realized it was horrible, this book is for you.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Boys Will Only Break Your Heart

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

There's something Curtis Sittenfeld does exceptionally well. I noticed it when I read Prep, and I noticed it in this book. When you look back at your adolescent self, you remember the moments when you were awkward, pitiful, and unloved, but without the immediacy or intensity that you felt when you were, say, ditched by your friends at a pool party so they could go splash water on boys who would never ever in a million years lift you, in your chaste Speedo bathing suit, up on their shoulders for a chicken fight.

What Sittenfeld captures better than any writer I can think of is the adolescent state of mind that says, "I am a maladjust, and there is never a time when I am not."

The Man of My Dreams begins with a teenage Hannah and her aunt musing upon the upcoming nuptials of Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland, ever so happy for Julia to have found her special, till death do us part soul mate. Later chapters follow Hannah through college and her early 20s, revealing her to be a person who would rather chase after unrequited love and wallow in her self-absorbed neuroses than find happiness, well... wherever she can find it.

A lot of reviews have described this book as asking the question, "Can you turn a messed up childhood into a happy adulthood?" (paging Dr. Laura...). However, I think it's more a book about why getting out of your own head and choosing happiness is a lot harder for people than it ought to be.

If you liked...: Prep, of course, Kinflicks by Lisa Alther, Saving Grace by Lee Smith, or books about women trying to get their shit together over the course of many years, this book is for you.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

More Thugs, Dirty Cops, and Vigilante Justice

The Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley
The L.A. Quartet by James Ellroy

Recently, Brady wrote about the three biggies of hard-boiled California crime, Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald.

Of course, the tradition doesn't end there. Just as MacDonald picked up the torch from Chandler, writers like Walter Mosley and James Ellroy have taken vintage L.A. crime novel touchstones -- flophouse rousts, tailing hopped-up blondes down Sunset Boulevard, and the like -- and made them very much their own.

Mosley's Easy Rawlins isn't a private detective, but, as a black man clinging tenously to a middle class, home-owning existence in 1940s Los Angeles, he's nudged into the role because it pays the bills. Specifically because he's not a PI or a cop, Rawlins can go where other people can't, win confidences, and get the hot leads. And in a genre where black men are usually fall guys and small-timers, and cops don't pay much attention to criminal activity south of the 10 freeway, Mosley's depiction of L.A.'s black community in the 1940s through the 1960s is unparalleled.

While Mosley is often compared to Chandler, this is less frequently said of James Ellroy. This is because Ellroy writes like a damned thug. His heroes are only marginally passable as specimens of humanity, the crimes committed are depraved and gruesome, and racial slurs fly like buckshot. But the man can tell a story, and does things that will make your head spin (in a good way). The moment I found myself rooting for Jack Vincennes and Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential, I actually worried about the state of my soul.

Since both Mosley and Ellroy write about the same period of L.A. history, read together, you get an interesting picture of the two L.A.s, occasionally acknowledging the other's existence, usually bloodily.

Both are terrific, if you've got the stomach for it. If you like the classic detective noir, and are looking for something edgier, these books are for you.

A list of the 10 Easy Rawlins mysteries is here, and the L.A. Quartet is here.