What I've Been Reading
For those of you who don't follow me on goodreads...
Mark Leyner, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2012.
This is the sort of book I had to check out of the library purely because of the title. How can you not take a chance on a title like that?
Mark Leyner's The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is about a metatextual epic that absorbs and incorporates everything that comments on it, to the point where the the original story has been overwhelmed by reams of nonsensical pomo lit theory jargon. It's an interesting premise, but one that doesn't really lend itself to a novel-length exploration. By the time you reach page 30 it's already starting to feel a bit sweaty, and by page 240 it's definitely outworn its welcome. I was nonplussed, confused, and infuriated and eventually settled into a sort of bored resignation. You really don't want someone to finish your novel with a feeling of bored resignation.
Part of the problem is that Mark Leyner thinks his writing is clever and charming, but it's really just relentlessly annoying. While he does have the occasional shockingly funny image or turn of phrase, they tend to be deeply buried among paragraphs of mindless nonsense. One of the keys to comedy is timing. You can't just go full speed ahead at all times. You have to take a break now and then.
I'm not necessarily opposed to nonsense. Hell, I love Alfred Jarry and Ring Lardner. One of my favorite novels from last year was Nicholson Baker's House of Holes. But there's a trick to making nonsense palatable and Leyner doesn't have it.
G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen. New York: Grove Press, 2012.
A computer hacker in an unnamed Gulf state is given a copy of a book that doesn't exist and is sucked into a world that simultaneously real and unreal. G. Willow Wilson has written a wonderful book explores the dualities that lie beneath the surface of today's Arab world without feeling like a thinly-disguised polemic or wallowing in oriental exoticism. Probably of the best modern fantasies I've ever read.
Christopher L. Bennett, Only Superhuman. New York: Tor Books, 2012.
Superheroes and prose are always an awkward fit at best, and Only Superhuman makes things even more awkward by moving everything into a posthuman science-fiction milieu. It's hard enought imagine a hero existing in the real world, much less one existing in a world where anyone can transform themselves into a weapon of mass destruction through genetic modification and advanced technology. Which isn't to say it can't be done, but Bennett doesn't even try to address that issue.
It also doesn't help that the main character is a grade-A idiot who suffers a from pet character syndrome. She's not really all that interesting, but other characters are constantly falling in love with her or telling her how awesome she is.
Andri Snaer Magnason, LoveStar. Translated by Victoria Cribb. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012.
In the near future LoveStar, an eccentric Steve Jobs-like genius, has discovered incredible things about the nature of life through his studies of birds and butterflies and his eponymous company has used this information to revolutionize all aspects of life — interpersonal communications, death, and even love. As the book opens, LoveStar (the man) is on the verge of his greatest breakthrough, discovering the true nature of God. But in spite of these breakthroughs the core of human nature remains unchanged. LoveStar (the company) uses the data it gathers from its operations to reshape society into unthinking consumers with no value other than their pocketbooks. It trivializes communication, devalues death, undermines friendship, and tears apart lovers. What will it do to the world once LoveStar discovers God?
This is pessimistic science fiction of the best sort. Magnason clearly extrapolated the most worrying trends of 2002 to their ne plus ultra and did not like what he saw. And yet somehow, a decade after this book was first published, we find ourselves in a worryingly similar predicament. Hopefully we won't need Magnason's apocalyptic denouement to solve these problems once and for all.
Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
Yes, yes, you've probably already read this one. So you don't need me to tell you that it's very good and surprisingly moving. I not looking forward to seeing how they turned this into an action movie.
Jonathan Strahan (ed), The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Six. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2012.
As "Best of" anthologies go, this one is pretty good.
Susan Roy, Bomboozled: How the U.S. Government Misled Itself and Its People into Believing They Could Survive a Nuclear Attack. New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2010.
If you are looking for an insightful analysis of mass hysteria and Cold War propaganda — well, this is not that book. This is a coffee table book, meaning there's about two pages of text for every thirty pages of illustrations. The illustrations are amazing, though. Susan Roy has managed to dig up enough old magazine illustrations and bizarre rarities to make this worth a flip.
Dan Koeppel, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008.
This book wants to be so many things — an anthropological history of the banana, a scientific history of the maladies that threaten to drive it into extinction, a business history of the United Fruit company — and ultimately it doesn't really succeed at being any of them. Dan Koeppel's is unable to tie all of these disparate threads together in a meaningful way, and his leaden prose makes it a hard read. There's interesting information to be had here, but getting to it is a slog.
Gustavo Arellano, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. New York: Scribner, 2012.
Another book that really reads like a series of magazine articles instead of a single coherent narrative. This one holds up better than Banana because Gustavo Arellano is an engaging writer and structures the book so that each chapter explores a single, coherent idea. Early chapters provide glimpses into a world where grizzled 1890s street vendors were ready to knife each other to protect their tamale patches but don't explore them in any depth. Later chapters about the history of Taco Bell and the invention of the frozen margarita that make the book worth reading anyway.
Jon M. Sweeney, The Pope Who Quit: A True Medieval Tale of Mystery, Death, and Salvation. New York: Image Books, 2012.
This is an odd book. John M. Sweeney spends a lot of time setting the stage for the brief papacy of Celestine V - explaining the complicated theological and political issues swirling around Italy in that time period as well as thorough a biography of the future pop as possible. But once Celestine is actually elected by the college of cardinals the rest of the book is a blur. You're left with an some interesting insights into why it all happened in the first place, and not much insight into what this meant for the Church in the long run.
Also, I just want to point out that I started reading this book and a week later the current Pope actually quit. So, great timing.