Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Recent Reading

It's been a while since I recapped what I've been reading lately, so here's a, well, a recap of what I've been reading lately. (Reading a lot makes me a gooder writer, apparently.)

:: Do other readers have writers who never quite reach the level of "Favorite Writers" but rather stay at the level of "Oh, yeah, that writer, I should really read more of him/her soon"? And it's not even the writer's fault that they stay at that level just under our radar screen of "Holy S***, a new book by XXX!"; it's that I'm often-times so all-over-the-map in my reading choices that few writers ever get a real chance to ascend to the "OMG a new one in hardcover SQUEEEEE!!!" position on my own personal Mt. Olympus of writers. Anyway, one of those writers for me is Michael Flynn. A few months ago I read The Wreck of the River of Stars.

Flynn does near-future hard-SF very, very well; he's right up there with Kim Stanley Robinson (yeah, there's another one of those almost-to-the-top writers), and I think he's actually quite better at managing the infodumps and creating characters to boot. Flynn's Falling Stars quartet (which I've only read three books of, yeesh!) is pretty damned riveting stuff, epic in scope in detailing one possible vision of how humanity starts to establish a permanent presence in space. The Wreck of the River of Stars is something quite different. Flynn assumes that humans have populated the Solar System, and that we have large ships ferrying people and cargo from planet to planet; and he also notes something that would obviously be the case, once one thinks of it: there would be the space equivalent of maritime disasters. Shipwrecks, with the ships being giant spaceships. As humans colonize the stars, sooner or later there will be the space-age analogue of the Titanic disaster, or the Andrea Doria, or the Lusitania, or any other great disaster. This is the tale of how one such disaster unfolds: the fate awaiting the River of Stars.

It's not really a spoiler, I guess; the title of the book establishes that the River ends up as a wreck. The River is an old vessel, nearing the end of her useful life; once an opulent passenger liner that used its gigantic solar sail to ferry the rich and wealthy around the System, the ship is now a retro-fitted cargo ship that is soon to be mothballed. On what the crew suspects is to be the ship's last voyage, though, a series of events occur to lead the crew to plot to bring the ship into Jupiter not under normal propulsion but by using the ship's long-dormant sails; it's a desire to taste the ship's glory days one last time in an age when solar sails have fallen out of fashion. Unfortunately, as the title establishes, the scheme fails, and the book tracks the efforts of the crew first to deploy the sail and then to stave off utter disaster. Flynn expertly ratchets up the tension as the desperation becomes more and more palpable. Some of the book's blurb quotes draw an analogy to Greek tragedy, and there is some of that here, as the crew is undone by its own hubris.

:: My Boring-Ass Life: The Uncomfortably Candid Diary of Kevin Smith is also exactly what the title says it is. Movie writer/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, etc.) was once asked what a "day in the life of Kevin Smith" is like, and he genuinely had no idea how to respond, so he kept a written diary for a year of what he did. I like Smith, so I enjoyed the diary, although I ended up skimming over large parts of it, as certain things get pretty repetitive. (Smith starts every day by getting up, defecating, letting the dogs out, seeing what the kid is up to, etc.; every day pretty much ends the same as well, with Smith and his wife Jen falling asleep to teevee shows on teevoe.) The more interesting stuff, as expected, focuses on Smith's tales from his filmmaking days during 2005 and 2006, when he was preparing for Clerks II (which I haven't seen) and gearing up for his first major acting job (for a flick called Catch and Release, which I also haven't seen). Along the way Smith sees an advance screening for Revenge of the Sith which he loved, discusses the sudden death of his father two years earlier, relates his failed effort to do a Fletch sequel with Chevy Chase (a guy who is legendary for being difficult to work with), discusses the drug addiction of his best friend, bitches about AICN talkbackers, and relates some pretty uncomfortable detail about his bout with anal fissures. (I really could have done without that whole last sequence.)

This book is witty if you, like me, have a high tolerance for the profane; other readers will likely find it tiresome quickly and end up throwing the book against a wall.

(BTW, here's Kevin Smith and his wife:



Looking at her, and thinking about all the other guys I know in life, myself included, who were "the unpopular with girls fat kid" in grade school who later ended up with really pretty women, I almost believe it should be my mission in life to go to every fat kid in every grade school in this country, every one of them who is despairing over their lack of any kind of dating life at all, and just say to them: "Guys, hang in there. It sucks now, but you get through another ten years and you'll reach this magical point where beautiful women suddenly realize that they actually dig the fat kid.")

:: One graphic novel that I've heard a lot about through the years, but never read, was The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller. Apparently this book was something of a relaunch for the Batman character, returning the character to his noir roots, or something like that. Batman has never been my favorite comics character – not that I've disliked him, but I've never really been all that entranced with him, either. There's always this uncomfortable mix of noir and camp in Batman that rarely, for me, comes off entirely successfully (although the movie Batman Begins, I think, got it right, and I'm really looking forward to The Dark Knight).

So, what of The Dark Knight Returns? Well, I don't know, really. Yeah, it's a good book, but it's not as good as I was hoping. In his introduction, Miller notes that Batman has never really aged, so that's his starting point: Batman when Bruce Wayne is in his last years of being middle-aged, or in his first years of being elderly. That's an intriguing conceit, but for me it ended up straining credulity toward the end, when we're still supposed to buy into Batman, whom we must remember is just an ordinary guy with some really cool tools at his disposal, going toe-to-toe with Superman, who is anything but an ordinary guy. I just couldn't believe that. Comics do this kind of thing all the time, having superheroes win fights that by any rights they shouldn't even be able to compete in (one example I've always remembered was when one of the Spiderman books had the Black Cat beating the crap out of Sabretooth).

I was disappointed anyway when Superman showed up, and I also felt the book overselling the whole "Will Batman cross the line he's constantly treading between good and evil?" thing. Mostly, though, I found the book too episodic for my tastes. Is it good? Sure. But "classic"? I'm not seeing it.

:: And then there's Life Sucks, a graphic novel that sort of blends Kevin Smith (Clerks) with Christopher Moore (Bloodsucking Fiends). A businessman whose main concern is his twenty-four hour convenience store finds that the best way of hiring reliable overnight clerks is to turn them into vampires. Our focus is on Dave Miller, overnight clerk who doesn't want to feed on fresh blood so he only drinks stolen plasma, who falls in love with the goth chick who comes into the store one night for orange juice. However, he also ends up in a wager for the girl's affections with Wes, another vampire who is a blond surfer-type. Hilarity ensues.

It's all pretty typical stuff for a vampire tale; lots of black humor involving death and blood. The story is well-drawn and nicely paced, and the dialogue is sharp and witty. Recommended.

:: Finally, one writer who is very near to cracking my "Screw the new iPhone, I'm camping out for the new book by XXX!" list is Anthony Bourdain. I read three of his books in rapid succession a while back, and now I've found his latest, a glossy photo book called No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, in which Bourdain shares a lot of photos and stories from the making of his teevee show of the same name. The tone Bourdain strikes here isn't the typical "companion book to the PBS series" sort of thing; it's more like if Bourdain personally showed you his photos from each location, with the occasional backstory thrown in. Bourdain is also a wonderful writer, so much so that I'm now starting to give serious thought to tracking down his novels, since I've exhausted his current non-fiction output. Here are some quotes:

Bourdain on drinking with Russians: In Russia people are not outgoing, or cheerful, or even particularly friendly. The women greet you with a look that says, "I could snap your collarbone without blinking. Why are you here?" And the men are equally gloomy – until you get halfway down the vodka bottle, that is. And you will. There's no way out. Each paint-peeling shot, inevitably from a whole bottle, plunked down on your table as automatically as the ketchup at a burger stand, is accompanied by a specific toast. To refuse the ninth toast of "To our mothers!" is to say, in effect, "F*** your mothers." Whatever relationship you might have had with the locals, it ended right there. Stick with it, however, and you are rewarded with a slow reveal of the beautiful Russian soul, a flowering of heartfelt declarations, poetry, song, and expressions of comradely affection. Centuries of Russian history and culture open up to you, make you a part. Soon you begin to understand the magic of the birch forests, the fierce Russian winters, the sad majesty of black crows on snow-covered fields. You vow to reread Tolstoy, to read Gogol – in Russian. The you throw up in your shoes.

On bathrooms in Japan: If you're comparing plumbing around the world, there's no contest. Japan wins. The Japanese like to be clean. Very clean. This is a nation of people who advocate showering – and scrubbing with a bristle brush – before getting into the bath.

On bathrooms in Uzbekistan: Fighting off carnivorous insects while squatting with one's pants around one's ankles, trying not to slip in the muck while at the same time nervously monitoring the unlocked "door" and tearing a piece out of the local newspaper – this is a skill set one must quickly master in the steppes of central Asia.

He doesn't say it as such, but here's Bourdain on why cooking is Art, as much as painting or music or poetry: When someone feeds you, they're saying something, they are telling you something about themselves. If you can't hear a voice, or if the voice is confused, chances are, you're eating at a "big box" faux-fusion restaurant – or a chain, or a hotel – where the menu and recipes were arrived at long ago, by consensus of committee. But when you hear a whisper in your ear with every plate that arrives at your table, or totilla wrapped personally by your host and placed directly in your hands, a bowl of pho, handed to you with a silent grin, then you feel...part of something...privy to a secret language, an ongoing, worldwide dialogue that's been going on since the very beginning.

From time to time, standing in an airport, some queasy fan will approach me and ask, "How do you eat all that stuff?" I think; So many people are trying to tell me things; why would I want to shut my ears to what they are saying? Particularly these days – when so much of what you hear coming out of people's mouths is bullshit? There is no lying with food. You either can or can't make an omelet. No amount of skill with words can conceal the truth of the matter. If you can cook, your soup is seasoned one of two ways: the way you like it, or the way your guests will like it. Both scenarios contain simple, inescapable truths.


Yeah, Anthony Bourdain rocks.

2 comments:

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Whatever you do, DON'T read Dark Knight 2 (DK2), Miller's sequel that DC published something like 5-6 years ago. It's creepy. And not in a good way. It's like Miller wanted to see how much crap he could shovel down fans' throats and still have them buy his stuff. To this day, I've yet to meet anyone who didn't dislike it considerably.

SK Waller said...

Oh yeah. Bourdain.