April 11, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | April 11, 2007 |


There’s a pretty great premise inside Thomas Healy’s I Have Heard You Calling in the Night: A lonely, friendless, drunk of a man cleans up his life and gets a Doberman pup, and eventually becomes attached to the dog and in so doing reconnects with the rest of humanity. That’s the basic story, and it almost unfolds with the kind of heart and grace you’d want from such a story. But Healy’s an old man now, and his 2006 memoir suffers from the kind of loopy prose old men are prone to spin out. The plain, mostly passive construction doesn’t try to do anything but lay out the basic facts: “So Martin it was, and I have never heard of another dog called Martin.” One of the book’s most effective sequences comes early on, when Healy reminisces about running away from his Glasgow home to spend a few nights in London, where he met and spent a week in calf love with a prostitute. His writing style now matches the naivete he had then, and the section is all about growing up and letting go, and it works. But, moments of sporadic beauty aside, the book’s uneven narrative prevents much of a through-line from developing: Healy goes back on the bottle, then cleans up, then slips again, then cleans up; he has a series of meaningless relationships; he copes with familial illness. Over the course of the story, Healy gradually develops an interest in God, despite a mistrust for religion, but his spiritual development isn’t given quite enough time to unspool: He doesn’t believe, then he attends a few serendipitous revivals, then spends time at a monastery, then believes. Incorporating the religious aspect of the story more thoroughly from the beginning, as well as better organizing the jagged chronology, would have gone a long way into turning a cute idea into a moving story.

I’d been meaning to read Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest for a while, and you can chalk it up to the unwanted “Veronica Mars” hiatus or the fact that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was in heavy rotation on HBO, but I pulled the book off my shelf and willingly threw myself for the first time into Hammett’s gritty, lean world of double-crosses, payoffs, and a whole lot of murder. But as much fun as it was, I just couldn’t finish the book. I know what you’re thinking: That I’m a failure, and have no initiative or commitment, and that I make poor life choices. But you should know it wasn’t my intent to put the book down when it got bad. That’s never my intent. Ever. Hell, I stuck with The Naked and the Dead long after reading the book became as much fun as actually marching to Bataan, so I can stick with a book. I’m not one of those people who gives a book 100 pages (or a film 30 minutes) to win them over before stopping; sure, life’s short, but not so short I shouldn’t finish books. But Hammett’s hard-boiled prose runs out of momentum about halfway through the novel, which isn’t one mystery story so much as an interconnected series of almost-vignettes about the unnamed Continental Op, who narrates, and his efforts to clean up the crime and murder in Personville, aka Poisonville. The book’s attempt at scope is its ultimate weakness: Instead of tightening the suspense and investing time in a major mystery, it spins a series of minor ones that never have enough time to involve the reader. I would pick up the book to continue reading only to realize I couldn’t remember what had happened last time. I’m not done with Hammett — it’s a kick to read the kind of pulp that helped pioneer and entire genre and mindset — but for the uninitiated out there, Red Harvest is no place to start.

There are literally thousands of awful volumes of inspirational or theological writing out there, the kind of cornball gag-inducing guides to being purpose-driven or kissing dating goodbye or how to get rich quick or any of a number of dangerously deceptive pseudo-intellectual screeds built around prooftexting. But I wanted to read something good, and that usually means C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain is deceptively slim — it’s about 150 pages of not very tiny type — but Lewis manages to cover a lot of philosophical and religious ground. He sets out to find an answer to the questions that everyone wrestles with: Why do people suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? What kind of just God would allow the existence of pain? Obviously, in 150ish pages, Lewis isn’t exactly able to answer every question, but his frank tone and commitment to chasing down possible solutions to the problems is admirable, and refreshing. He’s willing to confront what he believes and why, and works from an examination of the history of physical and emotional pain through the ramifications of free will in a society that prizes justice. It’s not an impenetrable book, but Lewis’ familiarity with and willingness to freely quote the philosophers you forgot about right after the midterm makes for some occasionally dense passages. But Lewis’ prose occasionally spins out a phrase or idea of true grace and jarring honesty, as when he admits that is “beyond my design” to make the necessity of suffering palatable. If nothing else, it’s moving to see a man so earnestly seek to explore the depths of his own soul. — Daniel Carlson

This has been a relatively quiet time for me on the book front, and I haven’t read any new or recent releases. Instead, I’m trying to put a dent into the ever-growing “To Read” pile, which means I may not be able to tell you anything about either of these books that you don’t already know. For example, David Sedaris’ 2005 story collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, is pretty similar to his other collections, although more of the stories here focus on his family. Many have said this is one of his best but I have to admit that I actually found myself a bit bored at times, and don’t think this collection holds a candle to, say, Me Talk Pretty One Day. However, it does contain what has become my favorite Sedaris story, “Six to Eight Black Men,” about Holland’s version of the Santa story. That story, alone, is worth the price of admission, particularly if you’re already a fan of Sedaris. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, I might start with one of his other books, although there’s nothing wrong with starting here. And, personally, I don’t care about the recent kerfuffle over that fact that Sedaris’ stories aren’t all 100 percent true, as he has often claimed. I always assumed he was doing some comedic and creative embellishment with his stories, and I read them for their entertainment value, not as a window into his past. To my mind, this isn’t the same thing as the James Frey debacle, and it hasn’t impacted my continued enjoyment of Sedaris’ works.

The other book I’ve finished is one that I’m sure none of you need to hear anything about - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. You’ve all heard of it, and you’ve already read it or you don’t care to read it. The Potter series has been in my “To Read” stack for a while, and in light of both the upcoming flick and the seventh-and-final book, I figured it was time to finally play catch-up. So for the next several months, I will probably be reading little else other than Rowling’s series. As for this first book, it was a pretty light and quick read. I enjoyed it enough that I jumped right into the second, and I’m actually looking forward to getting a bit further along, to where the books are longer and start providing big chunks of story not already covered in the flicks. In any event, I’ll just add that these books, while designated as children’s books, are certainly capable of providing entertainment to adults. If that was the only thing holding you back from reading them, don’t let it stop you. Otherwise, you probably know enough about this series to know if it’s something you’d like or not, so I need not say anything else on the subject. — Seth Freilich

Clive James is an Australian critic and essayist who has quickly (but belatedly) joined a list of my favorite writers. Last spring, I read a collection of his travel pieces that included this description of a reliable and pleasant airport in Zurich: “(It) was like a bank which had merged with a hospital in order to manufacture chocolates.” Somewhere in the avalanche of attention James has gotten for his latest, highly ambitious project, Cultural Amnesia, I read a strong recommendation of Unreliable Memoirs, an out-of-print recollection of his time as a schoolboy. It suffers from a lack of incident, but you could do a lot worse than this simple string of hilariously told escapades. The laughs come frequently, and they’re frequently out loud. James is as smart as he is funny, so the book is also studded with memorable, sometimes epigrammatic thoughts, like these:

Generally it is our failures that civilize us. Triumph confirms us in our habits.

The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached its height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium.

I talked endlessly, trying to fascinate her. At least twenty years were to go by before I began realizing that there is no point in such efforts - what women like about us is seldom something we are conscious of and anyway people don’t want to be charmed, they want to charm.

— John Williams


Jonathan Lethem’s latest, You Don’t Love Me Yet is his tribute to rock music, I suppose. It’s a sharply witty, well-written breezy kind of novel, and one that can be read in a sitting or three. It’s about Lucinda, a close-to-30 bass player in a struggling L.A. band that works a complaint line during the day, though the complaint line is mostly just a form of avant garde conceptual art. It is there were Lucinda falls in love with a complainer whose profession involves making up “itchy” slogans for T-shirts and bumpers stickers (“POUR LOVE ON ALL THE BROKEN PLACES,” “ALL THINKING IS WISHFUL”). Lucinda appropriates the utterances that the complainer makes during phone calls and, later, during sex and adds them to the lyrics of her band’s songs. Once the complainer learns of the plagiarism (and insists on becoming a member of the band), a lot of questions arise about the ownership of songs, questions which threaten to tear the band apart. It’s a cool book, mostly for the way it tracks the odd ways in which a song is created (and to whom credit is owed) and for the way it parodies romantic comedy. I have to admit, however, that after Fortress of Solitude, I was hoping for a little more than a light, trippy novel, or what essentially amounted to (a much smarter) Reality Bites for rock bands. Fortress was an epic experience, one of the best novels in the last twenty years, while You Don’t Love Me Yet was light Saturday afternoon fare that went down easy and left little lasting impression. And, honestly, Lethem is capable of a lot more.

I picked up Justin Tussing’s novel, The Best People in the World on a whim, because it was ostensibly about three back-to-landers in the early 70s who decided to move to backwoods Vermont and live off the grid, which is how Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate was raised (no running water, no electricity — just a creek, a lot of trees, a house her father built, and a lot of Dylan albums). It involves 17-year-old Thomas Mahey, who falls in love with his 25-year-old school teacher, Alice Lowe. They befriend the anarchist vagabond, Shiloh Tanager, and escape to an abandoned house they discover in Vermont, which they decide to squat on during a long and fierce winter, which threatened to tear their little family apart. I have to admit that The Best People in the World was a little hard going for a while — the kind of book where little happens. But, the last 50 pages were incredibly moving, as I slowly began to recognize all the metaphor and symbolism. It’s sort of like one of those literary novels you begrudgingly read because a college professor assigned it; and you mutter under your breath for 300 pages, until everything opens up and the reward overwhelms you. And if you have the patience for it, the payoff is definitely worth the slogging.

There was nothing literary about Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, however. It was an engrossing page-turner, a thriller about a high-school shooting in New Hampshire. The novel tracks the days, months, and years leading up to and after the shooting from the perspective of several different characters: a classmate and her mother, a local cop, the shooter’s parents, the defense attorney, and the shooter himself, who snapped after years of taunting and bullying (and you’ll be surprised at how sympathetic a teenager who kills ten and wounds 19 can be). It’s the first Picoult novel I’ve picked up, and she’s got a helluva knack for creating solid characters and a riveting narrative. In a way, actually, Nineteen Minutes seemed as thought it picked up where Richard Russo’s Empire Falls left off, and Picoult has his same ability to explore the lives of small-town America, creating rich identifiable characters and absorbing storylines, making it damn near impossible to put the book down for any length of time. I gather that Picoult is one of those bestselling authors that a site like ours is supposed to eschew, but fuck it: Nineteen Minutes is an outstanding novel. — Dustin Rowles

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All Thinking is Wishful

What Pajiba's Reading / The Pajiba Staff

Books | April 11, 2007 | Comments ()



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