Friday, May 1, 2015

The Month in Books: April Edition

In January when I read ten books I was all excited and thinking, "Wow, I might actually read 120 books this year if I can keep this pace up!" but then I only read eight books in February and eight books in March and I was thinking, "Oh, hmmm. Maybe eight books a month is a much more reasonable pace. 96 books is a stunningly impressive total for the year, too. Just be happy with that, ok?"

I read 14 books in April, mostly because I had a week of vacation. That means that 120 by the end of the year is once again attainable.

1) I hate to say a book is terrible, but Ben Marcus' The Flame Alphabet was a good idea that was terribly painful to get through. It was so bad that I almost preferred walking on the treadmill with nothing to read rather than keep reading this, but I forced my way through anyway, just to be done with it.

The story takes place in the near future, at a time when the sound of children speaking has become toxic. Eventually, all language, even printed text, follows, and Sam and Claire find themselves with no alternative but to abandon their teenage daughter, Esther. Even though they have to leave her, Sam refuses to give up on somehow keeping their family together, even though Esther's vocal teenage rebellion is slowly killing her parents. The rest of the book meanders through Sam's fruitless struggle to find a cure and to continue practicing a form of Judaism where he goes to a solitary hut in the woods and uses an organic device called a Listener to hear sermons from an underground orange cable that apparently spans the entire world, even though earing the sermons is also killing him.

There are a lot of problems with this book, but the basic ones are that there's never a reason why language became toxic, so the main plot is never resolved. Since it's not a plot driven novel, it then has to depend on the characters, but Sam is the only character given any kind of development, and he's just not that interesting.

It's been a whole month, and I'm still mad about all the time I spent reading this.

2) Laura Still's A Haunted History of Knoxville is a fun tour through the dark side of local history, but it would probably be more interesting for people who live or have lived in Knoxville, since it's written in a way that assumes the reader already knows the local geography. For those that don't, maps would have been helpful, but the book does have a lot of photographs and good basic descriptions. Like any good sized city, Knoxville has a dark and at times shady past, with criminals, trials, disasters, family secrets, and all of the other sorts of scandals and tragedies that allegedly cause a good haunting, and Still does a good job of storytelling and making the past come alive. On the downside, there are a few places where the text could have used a little tighter editorial hand, and the lack of stories about the University of Tennessee campus seems a rather large omission give its prominence in Knoxville. Overall, though, this was an interesting read.

Now that I read it, I kind of want to go on a Knoxville ghost tour. I also really want you to click that link, so you can rock out to the "Ghostbusters" theme song.

3) I've been reading books about Truman Capote since the end of last year, but realized the only things of his that I've actually read are In Cold Blood and some random Christmas story that was in three different English textbooks from seventh to twelfth grade, so I picked up Other Voices, Other Rooms mostly on the grounds that the protagonist and I have the same first name. That's a totally valid reason.

It's the story of young Joel Knox, who is called for by his absentee father after his mother dies. When he arrives at a broken down Southern mansion, his father is nowhere in sight, but he has a stepmother, a drunken uncle, an odd collection of household staff, strange neighbors, and the mystery of what he's doing there and where his father actually is. All of the answers are not forthcoming by the end of the book, and I'm not really sure why this was so acclaimed. Some of the descriptive passages are great and the characters are interesting, but there isn't really much plot.

4) Charles Yu's How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe was interesting, funny, and well-written. A novel of family and regret, it tells the story of a time machine repairman, also named Charles Yu, who lives outside of time for years at a stretch to keep from having to interact with people, kept company by an operating system with low self esteem and a dog that no longer exists. His mother lives out her days in a repeating hour of time and his father vanished into the past, never to be seen again, and Charles drifts through his job, helping stranded time travelers and petting his dog, until the day that he meets his future self.

And shoots him.

Now he's racing to unravel the mystery of why his future self showed up, how long he has before he arrives at the moment when he shoots himself, where his father went, and why his future self was carrying a book called "How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe", written by Charles Yu. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it was a fast read it was still good.

5) Andrew Pyper's The Demonologist introduces the reader to Professor David Ullman, a lifelong scholar of John Milton and "Paradise Lost". His marriage is disintegrating, he struggles with depression, and after years of writing about angels and demons without believing in either, Ullman's daughter, Tess, is abducted by a demon in Venice. Challenged to find her before the new moon, when she'll be doomed to live forever in Hell, Ullman must draw on all of his books, notes, and knowledge to follow a string of clues. Pursued by an agent of the church, he will deal with the living and the dead as time runs out and face demons both actual and personal as he fights to reclaim his daughter. This was a fast, high strung but well written thriller.

6) The protagonist of Fred Venturini's The Heart Does Not Grow Back, Dale Sampson, has a painful, wonderful gift: he can regenerate lost limbs and organs. Traumatized by the high school tragedy that revealed his ability, Dale is depressed and adrift until his best friend convinces him to take his talent to television, and Dale becomes rich and famous as The Samaritan, a man who gives away limbs and organs to people on the transplant list. When the girl who got away in high school comes back into his life, Dale sees a chance to do things over and right past wrongs. The only problem is that she needs something, too: his heart, the one organ of Dale's that will not grow back. Funny, crude, and at times heartbreaking, this is a novel of hope and loss that I was glad I read.

It's been a couple of weeks, but I'm still thinking about this book. I'm wondering if I still will be by the end of the year.

7) Matthew Jacob and Mark Jacob's What the Great Ate was an interesting collection of short facts about famous people and food. There's an extensive bibliography, and a lot of interesting stories, but a few times there are stories about the same person in the same chapter and I wonder why they didn't just group them together by person, rather than scattering them with other people's stories in between. This was fluff, but interesting fluff.

8) Wally Lamb's Wishin' and Hopin' should be a hilarious Christmas movie, but too many people would compare it to "A Christmas Story", so it probably won't be made and you should just read the book instead. I laughed all the way through the holiday adventures of Felix Funicello, third cousin to the famous Annette. After Felix drives his bipolar Catholic school teacher into a breakdown, a new, French Canadian substitute teacher in tight sweaters and short skirts makes waves by taking a hand in the Christmas pageant. She casts Felix as the little drummer boy but pits the rest of the class against each other when a casting struggle for the role of Virgin Mary arises between spoiled, rich teacher's pet Rosalie and new Russian student (and possible Communist!) Zhenya, who wears makeup, plays baseball with the boys at recess, and has boobs. Will they make it to the pageant in one piece? Will Felix's mother win the Pillsbury Bake Off with her Sicilian Shepherd's Pie recipe? Will Felix become famous like his famous third cousin? And will someone please explain the birds and the bees to him so he can stop hearing about it from sailors at the lunch counter?

I loved this book, and had no idea that Wally Lamb could write anything this light and amusing.

9) I'm not sure how I've managed to read multiple addiction memoirs over the years, as it's not normally a topic that interests me, but they keep ending up in my "to be read" pile. The latest was Bill Clegg's Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, and it tells the story about how Clegg had a nice, affluent life in NYC and then threw it away on drugs. In an epic, seemingly endless crack binge, he loses his job, his home, his partner, and spends his bank account down to zero. Then he goes to rehab, works on apologies, and ends up with a nice, affluent life in NYC. It's sad to read his struggle, but at the end of the book it doesn't really feel like he learned anything. After a couple of hundred pages of crack smoking, gigolos, expensive Manhattan hotels, $3000 suits and cashmere turtlenecks, there are a couple of paragraphs of "well, I may have wrecked some people's lives and some people lost their jobs when my agency was shut down" but that's it. He gets along with his family now but he doesn't really seem to have learned anything, and he's right back in the privileged life he started with.

10) Ryan Brown's Play Dead had a slightly interesting idea: the Killington High Jackrabbits are on their way to their first ever district championship when a prank by their rivals, the Elmwood Heights Badgers, sends the bus carrying the entire team except the quarterback off of a bridge, where they all drown. Blaming himself and struggling with survivor's guilt, the quarterback and the coach's daughter discover that his neighbor, a local witch, is a big football fan, and she can raise the dead. Now he has to lead a squad of flesh eating zombie football players to one last victory, or else the team's souls will be eternally damned.

This book is sometimes funny, but it never really comes together. The horror never seems really scary and most of the non-zombie characters behave in absurd ways that strain belief. If you're reading a zombie novel and thinking about how much it strains credibility, the author is doing a bad job of conveying their story and setting. Worse, the climactic big game is almost an afterthought, rushed through and tacked on at the very end.

11) Shadows Over Main Street, on the other hand, was well written, creepy, and intensely disturbing. It's a collection of stories by various horror writers built around the theme of traditional American small towns mixed with cosmic Lovecraftian horror, and the stories are disturbing and absorbing. It was well worth a read. Even better, it introduced me to a bunch of authors that I've never read before.

12) Peter Straub's Pork Pie Hat was short and somewhat pointless. A grad student in New York City encounters one of his jazz idols at a local club, and talks him into giving an interview. The musician spends the night getting drunk and telling a story about something that happened when he was a child, but I use the word "something" because it really is never quite clear what it was or why it was so disturbing. Later in life the student speculates and tries to put together the pieces, giving the reader at least some resolution, but the disjointed, buried plot that Straub makes out of it with the story within a story structure left me pretty unsatisfied as a reader and thinking, "That's it?" when I got to the end.

13) I didn't realize that Joyce Carol Oates' Sexy was intended for young adults until I looked it up on Amazon, because when and why did JCO start writing young adult novels, but that does explain why I read it so fast. It reads just as well as a story for regular adults, and if they hadn't said that in the summary I wouldn't have noticed.

It tells the story of high school jock Darren Flynn, a swimmer and diver, who girls describe (depending on the girl) as either "sexy but shy" or "shy but sexy". Darren's a nice guy who follows rules and tries to keep his head down until the day in November when something (or maybe actually nothing) happens with his English teacher. From that point on, Darren isn't sure what kind of guy he is, or who anyone else is, either: his parents, his teammates, his coach, his English teacher, and everyone else around him aren't who he thought they were before the thing happened (or didn't happen), and he struggles to come to terms with that and define himself in the world the thing that happened (or didn't) created.

This was an interesting read. It's just complicated, and I feel weird saying, "I liked this" when parts of it really bothered me, but that may be the sign of a good book, I guess? Also, my mind is still trying to grapple with the idea of Joyce Carol Oates sitting back in her living room and thinking, "I think I'll write a book for children. Sexy children. Who have sex. Yes, that'll be a fun Monday, I think."

14) Gary Braunbeck's Mr. Hands was interesting at times, but also a little run of the mill horror at times. Overall, I liked it, but I don't know that I would really recommend it to friends like, "Wow, you should pick up this really great book that I just finished!", because it was just kind of ok.

It tells a convoluted story of a psychic serial killer, a wooden figurine with giant hands, a lady named Lucy who has suffered a string of personal tragedies, and Sarah, Lucy's daughter. Sarah loves her little figurine, which she names Mr. Hands, but after she's murdered Lucy discovers that the figurine controls a larger, much more violent Mr. Hands, and Lucy begins to use Mr. Hands to deliver her own brand of justice to the rest of the world. Once she unleashes him, will she be able to keep Mr. Hands under control? And will he prove as easy to stop as he was to start? And why is a random vagrant in a bar the one telling us the entire story?

I liked this, but it tied up a little too quickly and neatly at the end for me.

For May, I'm planning to read only non-fiction. I'll report back on how it goes.


Marcheline said...

I have a suggestion for you. "The Last Chinese Chef" - a novel by Nicole Mones.

Ahnie said...

If you haven't done the ghost tour yet let me know. I've also been wanting to do it.