February 13, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | February 13, 2007 |


I’ve been a ravenous fan of Neil Gaiman for quite some time now; so much so, in fact, that I have an entire set-aside bookshelf chock full of Gaiman and Gaiman-related books, graphic novels, chapbooks, special printings, etc. Looking over this collection, one sees a rather broad range of styles, settings, and genres, but there’s a single underlying theme that appears time in again in Gaiman’s writings — he loves exploring stories about stories, studying the power and mystery of words and mythology. Gaiman’s most recent short story collection, Fragile Things, fits right into this oeuvre while also answering a lot of questions that you didn’t even know were on your mind: What disease are those who actually catalogue and make up diseases susceptible to? How did the Aladdin story come to be? How, exactly, does one talk to girls at parties? What does a phoenix taste like? What does the very last, and inexplicably missing, book of the Bible look like? What should you do if you find yourself in a fairy tale? There’s also a novella follow-up to Gaiman’s novel “American Gods” and several poems, which Gaiman says you can skip if you’re not interested in poetry (since they’re in the book for free, with no extra charge to you, the reader). As for the quality of this collection, I generally tend to prefer Gaiman’s longer works to his short stories, and this book hasn’t changed my mind. While I was pleased with the collection as a whole, it didn’t feel quite as strong as earlier efforts, and not every story fires on all cylinders. In fact, while there are many award-winners included here, some of the non-awardees actually stand up as stronger fare. That being said, there was still plenty to like about this book, and if you’re a fan of well-fashioned stories, you’ll probably think so as well.

While many will know Mark Bowden as the author of Black Hawk Down, I actually know and love him as the author of Bring on the Heat, a book wherein he followed my beloved Philadelphia Eagles for a season. A weathered reporter for the Philly Inquirer, Bowden’s focus in Killing Pablo is the early-’90s hunt for Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord responsible for the vast majority of cocaine that flowed into the states during the ’80s. While Bowden includes some Colombian history and information about Escobar’s rise to power, the main focus of the narrative is on Colombian and U.S. efforts first to capture Pablo and eventually simply to kill him (and since “Killing Pablo” is the title, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that Escobar was, ultimately, got). Bowden knows how to write an engaging narrative, with a very cinematic and gritty feel to it, and many sections of this book reminded me of the best parts of Clear and Present Danger and Blow, with even a touch of “The Wire” thrown in for good measure. The gruesomeness of the violence (committed by both sides), the infuriation of the political wrangling and missteps — it’s all fascinating and compelling as hell. I actually fail to see how this hasn’t been made into a film yet (the only obvious problem would be, perhaps, trying to narrow the tale down to a manageable film-size chunk of character and plot) [Publisher’s Note: Actually, there is a Joe Carnahan production of the film in development, starring Javier Bardem as Pablo.] I mean, even the “Entourage” crew realized the movie potential of the story, with the fake-movie-within-a-show Medellín. When are we going to get our real Medellín, damn it? (Although I’m perfectly happy for Pablo to be played by anyone other than Adrian Grenier, thank you very much.) —Seth Freilich

After enduring my interminable plaudits of Frank Portman’s King Dork (check the Amazon page for bonus accompaniment tunes), Phillip enthusiastically recommended John Green’s Looking for Alaska, based on its similar premise (Green also provides a blurb on King Dork’s dust jacket). Or, at least, based on the fact that both were high-school coming-of-age novels, which is by and far my favorite subgenre (if you can call it as much). There’s just something about that period in our lives — the ignominious torture, the self-destruction, the perpetual fear of rejection, the uncontrolled lust and the sexual ignorance — that I’m clearly hung up on, so if any of our readers have similar novels to recommend, I’m all ears. Anyway, Looking for Alaska is a pretty swell book about a kid obsessed with the last words of famous people who voluntarily transfers to an Alabama boarding school to escape his loserish reputation in a Florida high school. He falls in love with a girl named Alaska, who (so I imagined) is like a 16-year-old version of Lisa Loeb — a brainy, attractive feminist teenager (or “the hottest girl in all of human history”), who is dating a college guy at Vanderbilt. The chapter headings in the first half of the novel (101 days before … 77 days before … ) all lead to the tragedy that befalls Alaska, while the narrator tries to make sense of that misfortune in the second half. It’s angsty and heartbreaking and moving and, often, pretty hilarious. It took me nearly three months after Phillip made the recommendation to pick it up, however, because the cover is emblazoned with a big ole’ Printz Award sticker, which is an honor for excellence in “Young Adult Literature.” And while I have zero problem buying a movie ticket to Norbit, for whatever reason, I’m ridiculously self-conscious about what I purchase in a bookstore.

Which made asking a bookstore employee for the location of John Green’s follow-up, The Abundance of Katherines, all the more humiliating when he actually led me to the Young Adult section (“Oh … yeah, it’s for my little brother, see.”). But the embarrassment was worth it. Katherines is not as good as John Green’s debut effort, but it’s a solid novel about Colin Singleton, a child prodigy dealing with the fact that he is about to lose that status (I’d never given much consideration to the notion that child prodigies, once they reach the age of majority, become just like the rest of us). Colin also has a long history of dating only girls named Katherine. Anyway, the latest Katherine dumps him, which inspires him to go on a road trip. He winds up in some backwoods Southern town where he meets a girl, and — while he’s in the process of falling in love with her — tries to work out a complex mathematical theorem that will predict which partner in a relationship is the dumper and which is the dumpee. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Looking for Alaska in tone and theme. It’s not exactly great literature, nor is it philosophically heavy, but it’s not hackery, either. Both novels are smart, emotionally driven narratives about intellectual dorks dealing with love and the limitations that come with being too smart for your own fucking good. Call it wish fulfillment for nerds, I guess. And bonus: You can check out John Green’s regularly updated blog and get a pretty good feel for his writing personality. — Dustin Rowles

So, I’m currently slogging my way through Norman Mailer’s first novel, The Naked and the Dead, and while I’m not done yet — it’s 721 slow-moving pages, and I do have a job, you know — I figured I’d at least check in with a progress report. I picked up the book after a failed attempt to read it several years ago; my old bookmark was still on page 237, mocking me. I almost never give up on books, mostly because I hate to quit, and because I keep thinking the story will get better, which it almost always does. Add that to the fact that I’d already bailed on The Naked and the Dead once before, and I was beyond determined to succeed this time. I’m on the downhill slope now, just a couple hundred pages to go, but I have to admit it was touch and go there for a while. Mailer’s sprawling World War II tale about the campaign to capture the (fictitious) Pacific island of Anopopei, is a book of occasional moments of beauty scattered in a swamp of emotional anguish and political turmoil. Mailer is adept at capturing the mercurial way that men’s emotions toward each other can change, and the scattered “Time Capsule” segments that highlight the lives of the soldiers before the war are consistently compelling. But the book wallows in its middle section, after the men have landed but before they actually go out on a specific recon mission. It’s several hundred pages of flashbacks, talking heads, abstract conversations about America’s coming fascism, and unhappy men who wish they were anywhere else. Mailer’s got a good head for action and narrative, but all the life slowly drains out of the book in its bloated center. Still, though, the psychological complexity of the men and the number of detailed characters is dazzling, and Mailer captures the dull nameless yearning often found in young men caught between taking the chances that define them and making the mistakes that haunt them. I just wish the thing were shorter. — Daniel Carlson

killingpablo.jpgNeil Gaiman, Norman Mailer, Pablo Escobar, and Child Prodigies

What Pajiba's Reading / The Pajiba Staff

Books | February 13, 2007 | Comments ()



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