Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coming in January

Coming this month: reviews of Robert Matheson's 1950's vampire-zombie survival drama I Am Legend and David Remnick's very dense, very thorough The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Enjoy your holidays, enjoy your new year, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Great Perhaps, by Joe Meno

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009
414 pages
From $1.94 on eBay

Cloudy with a chance of ennui.

Two absent-minded professors--one a paleontologist chasing an elusive species of giant squid and the other an animal behaviorist lamenting the sexually-tinged murders of her research pigeons--become derailed and wonder whether they are really still in love. Jonathan suffers a rare form of epilepsy that causes him to seize at the sight of clouds, and Madeline suffers her husband's disorganization and the flirtations of her research staff. Their kids are frustrated individuals bookending the angst of teenage years: Amelia a senior in loathing with her upper-class suburb, building a pipe bomb in her bedroom; and Thisbe praying to God when she thinks no one is watching.

Character portrayal is the premise and boundary of Joe Meno's 2009 novel, The Great Perhaps. I got turned on to Meno's writing when I snagged The Boy Detective Fails at Moe's Books in Berkeley, California last year. The author has an indisputably brilliant style of incorporating the fantastic and absurd into serious dilemma, and The Great Perhaps follows this tradition with imaginative fireworks. Kneaded smoothly into the tale of malaise and anxiety are transcripts of sci-fi radio cliffhangers, alphabetically-sectioned chapters, declassified government telegrams, and illustrations of elephants, ears, and the above-mentioned seizure-inducing clouds. Investigating the roots of Jonathan's wishy-washiness, Meno stares into the regretful life history of the professor's father, once a child in a WWII internment camp for German-Americans, now an infirm man in a nursing home who reduces his own speech word by word, day by day, willing himself to disappear.

And there's more. The novel takes place in beginning days of GW Bush's Gulf War, in the final days of the 2004 election, setting a tone of wistfulness. There's good reason to feel concerned and down and even ashamed, and if you can identify with that then you know exactly how each of the characters in this book feels.

Meno quotes the Times on his author site when he says the book is about "the pros and cons of cowardice," but I just don't get it. I'm going to step out of my reviewer shoes and admit some low-browedness when I say I enjoyed reading this book very much, but felt lost in the emotional tides in this story. I love Meno's writing style, the crispness of his sentences and the truly sparkling imagery; few writers alive could create parallels between "the giant squid, a creature who, like Jonathan, favored the solitude of darkness to the unsafe spectacle of clouds above." But by the end of this read I couldn't determine whether his characters were any better or worse off than before, whether anyone had grown, whether anyone had changed, and so what was the point of this exercise?

Looking around, I got the sense that some critics might also have been fed up with the circus-spectacular parade of chimeras and nostalgia embedded in character tension and history. Eryn Loeb, writing in the LA Times, even said she thought Meno relied on gimmicks and seemed unable to tell the difference between them and genuine emotion. I wouldn't go nearly that far in criticizing the shallow faults of this book. I really enjoy Meno's ideas and his writing, and I'd gladly pick up his other novels, even if I wasn't head-over-heels with this one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Living Dead 2, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Night Shade Books, 2010
496 pages
$11.89 at Barnes&Noble

Read it and creep....

This book is shockingly good. At times, I to stop reading and check the cheesy cover to make sure I was still working on the same title. The dense collection of 44 different short stories from 49 contemporary writers and collaborators presents countless variations on the theme of the Living Dead. They go by many names: walkers, moaners, smirkers, the dead, zombies and "the z-word," and they appear as figures of vengeance, divine wrath, bioterrorism, alien invasion and comedy.

The sheer diversity of vision gathered here is one of the most encouraging qualities I've ever seen in an anthology. Adams's collection satisfies my childhood nostalgia for reading ghost stories under the blankets with a flashlight, and the tales come from both career writers and new voices, male and female, giving hope to the idea that creative ideas and solid storytelling still exist. Established contributors include Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead graphic novel and AMC television series), Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), and Max Brooks (World War Z: the granddaddy of pop-zombie resurgence). Newcomers include recent MFA graduates from University of Iowa, aspiring novelists, and even one contribution from Kyra M. Schon, the actress who played Karen Cooper, the zombie in the basement of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead.

My favorite stories in this collection play with and distort the reanimated bogeyman-concept until it's barely recognizable. In David Moody's "Who We Used To Be," an unexplained event causes instantaneous global death and persistent consciousness and motor control, and a family of three struggles to keep their home cool and their neighbors out to stave off inevitable decomposition. David J. Schow's "Where the Heart Was" describes a betrayed husband returning again and again to attack his cheating wife and best friend. And Gary Braunbeck's "We Now Pause for Station Identification" describes zombies malingering around their favorite haunts, morphing into plant life, and converting the world into an alien habitat.

Andrew Gilstrap, writing in PopMatters, put it well when he said
the contributors in this anthology knew where zombie fiction has been, and...take the genre in new directions entirely. Stories focus on sentient zombies, the newly infected wrestling with their consciences, organized armies of the undead, brain-eaters in addiction-recovery therapy, and zombies who find religion. The writing is consistently, startlingly good without--for the most part--employing gratuitous gore and violence.

Disappointments in this anthology are few and far between. Editor John Joseph Adams doesn't necessarily recommend you read the collection straight through, but you may want to skip past "Zombie Gigalo," a story on par with Palahniuk's "Guts" for gross-out factor but far beneath his storytelling craft. "He Said, Laughing" feels like it was lifted word-for-word from Scorcese's Apocolypse Now (but with zombies, get it?), and "When the Zombies Win," is a short, dull, one-dimensional portrayal of a post-human earth that reaches more for tone than narrative. For a concise tale-by-tale review of the entire collection, check out John Denardo's excellent piece in SF Signal.

It's no wonder this collection was named Fangoria's book of the month. Check it out, read it, and enjoy the ads in the back for forthcoming titles The Loving Dead and Harrison Geillor's The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten. By the time you reach Sarah Langan's final story, "Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?" even the biggest anti-zombie killjoy will be screaming for braaaaaaaiiiiins.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Useful Links for Readers

I'll try to post useful links to this site whenever I feel readers can benefit. All of us, for example, should be checking out this one. is a clean site that provides links to every online card catalog in the US. Check hours, get directions, and reserve and renew books under straightforward membership conditions.

If you've got an organization or link you'd like publicized, submit it as a comment or e-mail it to me at

Friday, November 26, 2010

Aravind Adiga's Between the Assassinations

Simon and Schuster, 2008
339 pages
$1 (plus shipping) at

Aravind Adiga has drawn attention with his last two works, this one a collection of loosely-connected stories, for highlighting the resentment and rage of India's urban underclass. His name stands out from a growing body of established Indian writers--Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghoush, and Hari Kunzro--whose works focus more on the malaise of the upper classes. His characters are often poor, desperate, and angry. Their economic class is as much a part of their identity as their Indianness. And it seems that as soon as they gather their bearings and anchor their lives, their earnestness and optimism are exploited by the elite.

In this collection of loosely-connected short stories taking place in the city of Kittur, a train station porter's ethnic pride is exploited by a scout for Kashmiri terrorists, a star bus conductor is cast into the streets when an accident mentally incapacitates him, a newspaper editor goes mad when he discovers his investigations and impartial reporting are propping up economic and political elites, a communist with a passion for social justice discovers his efforts to defend the poor undermine his public standing and chances for marriage, and a young girl treks hours through her city to beg money for her father's heroin habit. In this vortex of poverty and scrabbling, characters eke out lives performing menial tasks for the wealthy, who complain about the fattening effects of food at their private clubs.

I love the way Adiga illustrates the nihilism and loathing of India's poor, its lower castes, and its disempowered. The details of these stories describe the mix of old-world traditions and new-world poverty, such as when a house servant mixes onion and chopped coriander with plastic packets of MSG. India is too often romanticized as the land of sadhus, yoga, meditation and colorful saris, but these characters frequent the local pornographic movie theater, get into brawls at the liquor store, betray their families and curse their own lives. In one of my favorite of these tales, a dismissed housekeeper wonders what the gods would do to her in the next life for stealing a broken toy from her master's yard. Would she be reborn as a "cockroach, a silverfish that lived in old books, an earthworm, a maggot in a pile of cow shit... maybe," she wonders, "if she sinned enough in this life, she would be sent back as a Christian in the next one...."

Time Out New York complained that this work lacked a center of focus. It's a criticism I can agree with, but I don't think it detracts from the enjoyment of these stories. The British Telegraph sees the collection as an extension of the "chicken coop" society that Adiga described in White Tiger: "Go to Old Delhi ...and look at the way they keep chickens there in the market. Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they're next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country." Oddly enough, all of these reviews mistakenly identify the setting as the "fictional city of Kittur," Has no one heard of Google Maps?

Book critics are wont to fall over themselves praising authors once a previous work achieves a critical measure of success (see Dan Brown and others), but in this case I think the praise is warranted. Adiga is an writer to watch, and I look forward to his next work. For those with a hunger for more, three of his stories, previously posted in the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Times are available free on his website.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Under the Dome, by Stephen King

Under the Dome opens on the town of Chester's Mill, a sleepy Maine country 'burb that could've been drawn from the margins of a Norman Rockwell painting. It's a crisp and beautiful day in late-October when the boundaries of an invisible force field--40,000 feet high, immeasurably deep, totally impenetrable, and beyond anyone's understanding--descend on the town's borders, dividing the residents from the outside world as neatly as it severs the body of a woodchuck shambling across a field.

There's confusion and chaos at first as the denizens discover the perimeter of their confinement: cars appear to collide with mid-air; people heading to the scene of the accident run face-first into the barrier; a woman taking flying lessons smacks into the edge of the dome and crashes to the earth in a pile of fiery shrapnel, the wreck of her plane leaving a mid-air streak of burning gasoline on the clear edge of the dome.

But the barrier and resulting isolation aren't the source of tension in this story: instead, it's the cruelty, psychopathy, and lust for power King thinks our friends and neighbors will practice when given free reign over the law and a mandate to keep things under control. "I'd say our prime concern--our prime responsibility to the town--is maintaining order for the duration of this crisis," says Big Jim Rennie, Chester's Mill's born-again second selectman and the real nemesis of this book. Adds Assistant Police Chief Peter Randolph, in one of the first of many notes of irony and foreshadowing, "Nobody's gonna get hurt, Big Jim. This is Chester's Mill. If it was New York City, things might be different."

And left to their own devices, maybe no one would've been hurt. But add to the town's sleepy population one migraine-suffering serial killer, one crystal meth factory headed by a well-armed Jesus-freak, and several rapists, and you have a neat recipe for a self-contained holocaust.

There's a lot of to like in this novel. Over the sprawling course of 1075 pages, as I got more immersed in the story and familiar with the geography (King graciously provides a detailed aerial map and cast of characters), I could feel the shrinking confines and deepening claustrophobia. Jedidiah Berry writing in the LA Times, agreed that with folks prevented from coming or going, the small town feels even smaller. When Jim Rennie makes his play for power, "for the good of the town," the people galvanize between sides, and the town cops emerge as a dark, malleable, and very violent force that grows beyond the supply of police uniforms. New recruits join the force from the high school ranks of jocks and thugs, don blue armbands and assault the opposition. Drama and discomfort metastasize until King reaches full-swing: the town is falling apart, good men and women are beaten and threatened with torture, the air grows thick with pollution and hot with greenhouse gasses, and ultimately the town literally erupts in flames. One excellent blogger complained that the novel was so character-driven, the apocalyptic ending felt incongruous with the set-up. But for my money, the Hiroshima-like three-page of narrative describing Chester's Mill in smoldering ruins was fair payoff for 900-and-something pages of meandering dialog and the skateboarder crowd's Scooby Doo-type detective work. It was also a very daring move for audiences that are accustomed to seeing the monster turn back at the very end.

But this book is also mired in the plot devices and literary stunts that used to make King's work feel so original, and now seem rehashed. Children have seizures and paranormal visions of the future. Ghosts of the recent dead come to help the living. There are aliens (though they make only a fleeting appearance), childhood bullies, and dogs that save the day. None of it feels quite as fleshed out as it ought to, but somehow we feel as though we've been down this road before. To speed through the lulls in this behemoth of a novel, King over-relies on 'ticking clocks': the town is going to run out of food any day now; the air temperature and pollution count inside the Dome are rising, and the air will turn poisonous; there's a town meeting scheduled for Thursday, when Big Jim Rennie will lynch the hero; the children keep seeing visions of mass destruction occurring Halloween, maybe even sooner! You expect there to be a slow progression from confusion to panic to mayhem over a period of weeks. In the world of Chester's Mill, this happens in less than 7 days.

Another issue is that Big Jim Rennie, though repugnant, is far from terrifying. "He's the worst kind of politician--selfish, too egocentric to realize he's way out of his league, and a coward underneath that bluff, can-do exterior of his," the town newspaper editor opines. But Rennie's not the sort of man who hacks up his wife and son with an ax, or eats missing children underneath sewer grates, or kidnaps and tortures bestselling authors in his home. Absent also is anything as creative as the terrifying fantasy-scape of Lisey's Story. Over his writing career, King has produced such a vivid menagerie of evil creatures that it's hard to take seriously this overweight, born-again blow-hard. King stated in an interview that he had cast Rennie in the literary mold of the Bush administration, micro-sized to scale for small-town America. Rennie is old, overweight, and has a bad heart. He purposely seeks the second selectman's seat on the town council, to avoid the scrutiny that come to the first selectman. Wonder who that sounds like? Even those of us who lived through the horror story of Cheney's eight years may have trouble seeing Rennie as the monster this story desperately needs to keep it moving at pace.

But it's unfair to judge each of King's novels against the success of earlier phases in his career. Under the Dome stands very well on its own two legs, and is an interesting piece of "What-If" fiction with the power to see this hypothetical all the way to its grim conclusion.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Inner Circle, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle stumbles in this flaccid dramatization of Professor Alfred Kinsey and his sex research team.

I was pretty excited to get my hands on this book. A friend in New York was cleaning out her apartment, and I was about to hop a plane to San Francisco. Boyle is a master of contemporary American fiction, almost without equal, and his past explorations of historical fiction have produced some of the best writing of the last 20 years, including The Road to Wellville and World's End.

So my expectations were high when I cracked open The Inner Circle, Boyle's fictionalized imaginings of the research team under Alfred Kinsey, narrated in the voice of John Milk, the professor's first research assistant. Milk first meets Kinsey when he signs up for the professor's "Marriage Course" at the university, and later in the library stacks. The professor first conscripts our narrator to help with his gardening, then to assist him with sex research interviews and statistical analysis, and soon after as a reluctant partner in Kinsey's own "inner circle" of wife swapping and carnal adventure.

Perspective was the first flaw I found in this story. Milk tells his tale--a confession, really--from the secluded guest bedroom of his home, getting drunk and maudlin before a tape recorder just hours after Kinsey's funeral. It is years in the future from the events that make the focus of the book, but Milk continually jumps from the present to the distant past, forward again to the present, back once again to the more recent past, and back again to find the thread of the original story. Playing with time this way can sometimes imbue a book a greater sense of shape and dimension, but here it inspires confusion, a sense of fracture, and worst...boredom.

John Milk is another problem with the story, a virginal, idol-worshiping, lukewarm ninny who reminds this reader of a skittish dog. His courtship and early marriage to good-girl Iris are complicated by Professor Kinsey's (Prok's) demands for his time and attention, but Milk is too swept up in the research and infatuated with his boss to set personal boundaries. A Washington Post reviewer pointed to the significance of Milk's initials, JAM, as indicative of some sort of metaphor for the narrator's spineless and saccharine character. Too often in the book, I found it inspiring thoughts of "milquetoast," timid, weak, and unassuming. Describing the effects of a bourbon-drinking session, he apologizes to no one in particular: "it was a fifth and it got both of us pretty giddy, I'm afraid." Writing about his state following that session, he says, "I woke sometime in the night with a dry throat, a condition that often afflicts me when I've been drinking." Such mousy characters just don't drive great reads, or even entertaining reads.

Milk is swept up in the undercurrent of Prok's field research trips and casual sex, and it's no surprise where this is leading: marital tension, alienation, and more whining in front of the tape recorder.

I gave up on this read when I felt whatever payoff was coming at the book's end wasn't worth the tedium of the remaining 122 pages. Other reviewers have fawned over this book, quite intelligently, perhaps seeing something I didn't. Jennifer Reese at Entertainment Weekly lauds this book as tale of moral ambiguity, and Boyle's characterization of Kinsey as a creepy "grotesque" force within that spinning compass. My take was closer to Michiko Kakutani's at the New York Times, who aptly identifies the book's "monochromatic prose" and calls this story a "tired chronicle." As much work as Boyle has invested in bringing salacious detail and personal angst to the book, perhaps we live in a time where, when porn has become boring, none of us can be so easily titillated.

Burn After Reading

Here's a blog for people who love to read. I think I read a lot more than some people, and maybe less than a few others, but I'll try to keep this site's content fresh and the reviews coming.

This site is also for people who are itching to share their ideas and feelings about the books they read. I'm a borderline compulsive reader (if I can't find books, I'll turn to the backs of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles), and too often I find friends who just aren't interested in discussing books. We'll be looking at new releases, old titles, the good, the bad, and the terrible--and avoiding the kind of tedious navel-gazing you'll find in some literary blogs and publications.

If you have an opinion on a book mentioned in this site, if you disagree with my opinion, or if you want to recommend a book for review on this site, please speak up and post a response! All comments are welcome. Thanks for visiting. Come again soon.