My Year In Books: 2011, Part 4
THE SORROW KING† — A rash of suicides among the young residents of a small town are the tip of the iceberg for a sinister supernatural plot of some kind. I don’t know what kind because I stopped reading at the halfway point. Presumably it involves some evil entity for which the novel is named. The story premise is just interesting enough that I kept trying to read it, thinking maybe it could make the basis for a good low-budget film, but the prose and plotting is just uneven enough that I eventually gave up on it. It has some bright spots — the banter between the main POV character and his father is pretty good taken on its own — but overall I just couldn’t stick with it. [Kindle Edition]
ALICE IN QUANTUMLAND† — A work of attempted science popularization, describing the weird and wacky concepts of quantum mechanics using Alice in Wonderland as a basis. The sensibility of Alice is uniquely suited to the task, with quantum mechanics being so full of seeming nonsense and apparently impossible things, but I somehow couldn’t be bothered to finish it.
The issue, for me, is that the concepts remain abstract. It describes the bizarre things photons and electrons and protons etc. do… but it doesn’t bother explaining how these things are applicable at the non-quantum level. How does this affect me? How has knowing this changed our world? I’m sure it has, but the book doesn’t bother describing any of it, unless it was in the last few chapters I didn’t read. It leaves quantum mechanics a mystifying novelty, squandering a solid metaphorical conceit by not using it to clarify the subject to this layperson in a meaningful way. [Kindle Edition]
GOD, NO! — I don’t always agree with Penn Jillette. It might even be that I disagree more often than not, but I haven’t done the math. But it’s still hard to dislike the guy. His book is a fun — if occasionally frustrating — read, and provides plenty of interesting insight into the way his mind works. Not just about atheism, it also talks about sexuality, the life of being a magician, and (blissfully little) politics. [Kindle Edition]
THE SHINING — It’s been a long time since I read a Stephen King book. I used to read damn near nothing else, but I just felt so burned on the end of the Dark Tower series. I did read Cell, his first post-“retirement” horror novel, and it was pretty good, but I still just lost my taste for the brand for a while.
But in preparation for a Down in Front episode for the Kubrick adaptation, I went back to re-read The Shining, and goddammit, when King is on, he’s really on. This just might be his best work, being the one of his stories with a concise and satisfying beginning, middle, and end. He’s had a lot of satisfying beginning-middles, but has a tendency to not quite stick the landing, at least in my opinion; his endings have a tendency to feel anticlimactic or like a sudden left turn. But Shining delivers, and may well be one of, if not his best novel.
After remembering what I liked about King in the first place, I think maybe I’m ready to read some of his newer stuff, to which I’ve been resistant. In fact I’ve just downloaded 11/22/63 via Audible. You’re on probation, Steve. [Kindle Edition]
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN (VOL. 1) — Rambling and often hilarious, as Twain intended. It is a gigantic motherfucker of a book in physical form, so I suggest the Kindle edition or audiobook if you actually want to do more than just display it on your coffee table. [Kindle Edition]
THE SERIAL KILLERS CLUB — A loser with no friends inadvertently joins a support group for serial killers, and finds himself having to kill them one-by-one before they figure out the truth. Bizarre and funny, with a very well-executed Unreliable Narrator. There’s one plot twist that didn’t land for me but I’d still say it’s worth reading. [Kindle Edition]
STEVE JOBS — An imperfect portrait of an imperfect man who was, ironically enough, obsessed with perfection. Worth reading for his story, but it really could have done with the extra few months of editorial work I’m assuming it didn’t get when his death put this on the fast track to publication. The same ground was covered more than once, anecdotes repeated and certain repetitive phrases started to stand out. But as it’s the most comprehensive biography on the man that’s ever likely to be published — not overly obsequious, and in some places pretty damning, it doesn’t leave room for a future exposé of the “untold history of Apple” or anything like that — if you’re interested in the man, you’ll be interested in the book. [Kindle Edition]
ON WRITING — Having revisited King I thought I’d revisit his memoir on becoming and being a writer. I wish he didn’t have such a disdain for plot — he’s quite proud of the fact that he writes without any idea of where he’s going, which I think explains why most of his stories start out strong and then run out of steam and/or conclude abruptly. Not to mention the twenty-five-year Dark Tower faceplant. And, corollary, why — with the exception of those guided by Frank Darabont — his stories tend not to adapt well into the visual medium. I wonder if his open admiration for the Harry Potter series has given him pause or cause to rethink his position. Anyway, a nice perspective on the life of a writer. [Kindle Edition]
A CLASH OF KINGS / A STORM OF SWORDS — I wanted to stagger the reading between Song of Ice and Fire books, but with everyone talking about what a shit-storm the third book is, never mind the swords, I had to roll straight from book 2 to book 3.
If you have any interest in all in the series I’m sure you’ve already heard all the things I could tell you; if you’ve seen or read GAME OF THRONES, it’s like that but moreso. Everything ratchets up a notch in 2, and exponentially in 3: the brutality, the sexuality, the magic, and the shocking and abrupt killing-off of characters — heroes and villains alike — who would be “safe” in any traditional narrative.
What especially stood out to me as I got deeper into the story was the depth of the world Martin created. He’s created thousands of years of history, true — wars, family lineages, alliances and betrayals — but that’s pretty much de rigeur for a modern fantasy series. What he’s done that really brings the world to life above and beyond other would-be successors to Tolkien is create thousands of years of culture as well. In the jargon of Tolkien scholarship, he hasn’t just created a mythopoeia, but an extensive in-world legendarium as well. Martin doesn’t go so far as to actually create functional languages for his varied races the way Tolkien did, but every culture has its own way of doing things, its own (sometimes quite detailed) reasons for doing so, its mythologies and folktales, its ballads and idioms. It also manages to feel completely thought out, without the in-your-face “look how much I thought this out!” attitude of many lesser series. [Kindle Edition / Kindle Edition]
1. I want to say The Stand but man, the ending is just so abrupt and unsatisfying. The first half to three-quarters are probably his best writing, though.
2. His father told him about a cabinet-maker who finished the back of the cabinet to the same standard of quality as the rest even though it would be facing the wall and never seen because a true craftsman has Standards, Dammit™. And this mentality infused a lot of the decisions he made throughout his professional life. Cool. I got it. You don’t have to repeat the whole anecdote each time it comes up.
3. Take a drink every time a variation of “focused on producing great products” pops up.
4. I know, I really need to get over it. But, you know, fuck. Dark Tower 5-7 is the literary Star Wars I-III, and people have yet to stop bemoaning those turds, either.
5. Although I have to assume that the similarity in some words and names like valar, morghulis, and Drogo are deliberate homage.
6. My personal rule of thumb: an appendix is fine, but if you have to provide a glossary, you’re trying too hard.