Monday, October 26, 2015

10 Minutes About All The Various Books I Have Been Reading (Or Not Reading)

So I haven't done this post in a bit and I thought I could just sum up and talk in general about all the books, starting with the two I just started:  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson.

I started reading The Goldfinch because of controversy. I heard a lot about it last year when it won the Pulitzer Prize, but that wouldn't have made me want to read it.  What made me think about reading it was the discussion over whether it was really a good book at all; this article sums up the discussion, and when I read about why people were arguing about whether it was a good or bad book I decided to give it a try. I'm only about 2 chapters in but so far it's good.

The Laughing Monsters has an even thinner reason for reading it, or thicker, depending. I picked it up solely because I loved Denis Johnson's collection of short stories, Jesus' Son. I've said before that Denis Johnson writes stories as if he were doing a gritty reboot of Damon Runyon's world: the same gangters and crime background but where Runyon's are colorful and fun, Johnson's are desperate and sad and lonely.  I have no idea what The Laughing Monsters, a novel Johnson wrote, is about: I'm only two chapters into that, too (on audiobook) but it doesn't matter: already it's gripping. I first put it on when I took Mr F for his ride last night and I thought about extending the ride out to continue listening. It helps that it's set in Africa and involves (apparently) some sort of criminal. I like books set in Africa. (I read Foreign Gods, Inc. a while back and liked that, too, although it's very different from Johnson.)

I got to Laughing Monsters after I rejected, on audiobook, Funny Girl by Nick Hornby. Hornby wrote one of my favorite books ever (A Long Way Down) and some other good ones (How To Be Good, Juliet, Naked) but this book got some bad reviews and about twenty minutes in, I wasn't entertained by the story of a woman who is beautiful but who wants to be a comedienne.  I also started but gave up on The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer, a book that had an interesting premise but which fell apart so much that I didn't even bother finishing how it ended.

The Uncoupling is about a town in which all the women decide to stop having sex with men, about the time a drama teacher decides to stage a play of Lysistrata at the local high school. That sounds kind of hamhanded, and it is. The book is the sort in which a character nobody likes because she is unpleasant is actually named Abby Means. It has the feel of a book that wants to have a message, but the message (if there is one) is muddled.

I don't feel that every book must convey a theme or have a higher point or a moral or whatever; I read plenty of books whose main point is tell a story.  But The Uncoupling was draped in all sorts of symbolism that felt half-baked and overwrought at the same time. There is a veteran of Afghanistan, a kid just out of high school, who dropped out when his girlfriend got pregnant and who later went to war and had his face ruined, and he sort of on-the-spot befriends the hottest girl in school who on-the-spot decides that her refusal to have sex will be a protest of the war in Afghanistan, which causes another character to take the hot girl's role as Lysistrata, only to have her big night ruined (sort of) by all the men in the audience coming on stage to complain that they love their wives so much, why can't they please have sex?


I made it through about 75% of the book, mostly because I had 7 hours of driving in one day and it was the only book on my phone, but it never developed into a story with a coherent theme, and it never became entertaining, either, so I dropped it.

I finally finished It, too, after the fourth go-round on borrowing the audiobook from the library. IT WAS NOT WORTH IT.  The book is great for the first 2/3, and then mediocre for about 1/2 of the final third (got that?) before becoming at times gross (there is a scene where all 7 of the 12-year-olds have sex to escape the monster.  NOT EVEN KIDDING. I felt like I should be calling the authorities on King), the final battle with It goes on for FAR TOO LONG, and it jumps back and forth confusingly between 1957 and 1985, for no reason that I could tell; like I said the last time I talked about the book, starting the story in 1985 makes the 1957 flashbacks entirely unexciting, since we know everyone survives. The only surprise was that they survive by having sex. As 12-year-olds. In a sewer full of poop.

(Stephen King mentions poop so much in his books that I thought about starting a TUMBLR of each reference to poop he makes. For a guy who is such a great writer, his flaws are stark and large.)

There were sort of throwaway terrible parts to It, too: like how throughout the book [SPOILER ALERTS] King keeps hinting that there is some 'ritual' that will help the 7 kill the monster, and then at the end, when they do the ritual, "It" doesn't die at all -- it just flees further back where two of the kids have to go punch it to death. So what was the buildup with the ritual? Who knows? There's also some sort of weird cosmology where there is a giant turtle that lives in space -- I am 100% not making this up -- and the kids get flung out into space near it (apparently just mentally but still) and the turtle says it can't help them. Also it talks with a bit of a western drawl. I kept thinking of Gamara.

Apparently it took something like four years for King to write It, and it shows.  It's like he had a pretty good story that he then just sort of threw everything else he had lying around into. "Hey, kids battling a monster that appears as their worst fears... yeah, good, but it needs a crazy bully and some homoerotic garbage dump scenes and child abuse and a lengthy chapter in which a pharmacist tells a kid that his asthma is all in his mind, which later on will be undermined by suggesting that not only is it not simply psychosomatic but in fact the inhaler is magic, plus why not a giant cosmic turtle?"

And finally, the book I read in a week was What If? by Randall Munroe, who is the author of the XKCD comic strip. He's a former robotics guy for NASA who quit that job to draw a stick-figure webcomic full time, and then he started writing serious scientific answers to ridiculous questions, like what would happen if the Earth stopped rotating but the atmosphere didn't, or if you threw a baseball at 90% the speed of light, and stuff like that. It's an amazing book, one that might even appeal to people who don't care much for science, but if you do like it, it's one you should pick up now.  I had it on my waiting list for a year, and then when we were at the library last week, I saw it on the "new releases" shelf in regular book format, and decided I'd give up my dislike of real books for long enough to read it. I was not disappointed.

That's the roundup.

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