Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let's Reading!

Yeah, so I said I intended to write another entry or two earlier this month prior to the Raleigh Quarterly's next issue went up with my short story. Technically, their fall issue isn't up yet, anyway, but I was focused on other things as usual. (Project 27 Days has 20 of its 28 chapters complete now, and these last 8 are already mostly complete, so I'm still on schedule to hopefully finish by the end of this month, in time to shift focus to grad school applications and an agent hunt in October.)

I'm here now, anyway, for whatever it counts. In focusing on my literary work, I've been running low on good blogging ideas as usual for a while - not having been intending to swamp you with political or even more video gaming entries. (Though more of both are certainly coming later this year.) It'd be nice to appeal to those who've come for some of the other categories I haven't blogged about in ages, but I'm still blanking great odd comedy ideas for many of these things at this point. Hopefully I'll get to some more later this fall as I shift back to focusing on blogging more once the novel's finished.

For now?

As a soon-to-be-published new author and aspiring novelist about to finish his first novel, I haven't done any "what I've read lately" sorts of posts. So I figure it's about time I did so.

This time?

The books I've read this year at a glance, with some general thoughts and commentary. Exciting, no? Of course it is.

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore. This was Christopher Moore's debut novel, first published back in 1992. Practical Demonkeeping tells the story of a young man named Travis who stopped aging back in the earlier 1900s after accidentally summoning a giant lizard demon from hell named Catch to be his servant, gaining effective immortality in the process. The story follows Travis and Catch's arrival in the fictitious Californian town of Pine Cove - along with the lives of numerous characters there - as Catch begins wreaking havoc while Travis continues for his search for a means to get rid of the demon. As a result, of course, the residents of Pine Cove's lives are turned upside down. It's a very funny, light read, and a solid introduction to Moore's writing. It might be a little over the top ridiculous for some, but it's well worth reading, and certainly great in how it pokes fun at supernatural thrillers that take themselves far too seriously - as Moore's works often do. He's certainly a highly enjoyable author worth keeping an eye on, someone to read if you're looking to laugh.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami. After Dark focuses on the unusual events that unfold over a single Tokyo night between two sisters. The elder, Eri, sleeps through the night while being drawn into menacing and surreal circumstances, leaving the reader as a sort of unusual second person unidentified disembodied figure simply observing the ordeal she undergoes. (It's hard to describe it beyond that without dropping any spoilers. Given that this is Murakami we're talking about here, if you're familiar with him, you can imagine how strange it is.) The younger, Mari, spends the night reading in a Denny's and finds herself interrupted repeatedly by an old acquaintance, a battered Chinese prostitute, and a tough woman who ran an area love hotel. While she interacts with these characters, something sinister quietly unfolds in the background. Frankly, this one isn't one of Murakami's stronger works for many reasons. His usual recurring themes of alienation and loneliness are present, but in many ways, it's a lighter story than he usually tells - despite the darker undercurrents. A great deal of the background events are never explained and many things don't completely add up. You're left with far more questions than answers, and the story does feel somewhat incomplete as a result. The ending is effective, however, and the night is full of wonderment and incredible atmosphere. The interactions between Mari and the other characters carry the book, with all the brilliant, enjoyable conversation you'd expect from Murakami. Overall, while it won't knock your socks off like you'd expect from one of his novels, it'll keep you thinking, and leave you with a lot of pleasant feelings. It's well worth reading, as you'll greatly enjoy the time you spend with these characters, as short as the novel itself is. Quality magic realism, as Murakami has produced much of. Murakami's still easily one of my favorite authors.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut. An author known for his dark, comical stories, Vonnegut's The Sirens of Titan is no different, and certainly a very memorable work of literature, both as a work of science fiction and social commentary. The book tells the story of Malachi Constant, an extraordinarily lucky bastard living his life hedonistically, enjoying his riches and fame. After a meeting with the chronosynclastic infundibulated (A rather difficult to explain absurd phenomenon that keeps Rumfoord and his dog traveling back and forth across space.) Winston Niles Rumfoord, who forecasts a trip across the galaxy for Constant, ending with him married to Rumfoord's wife on Titan, Constant's life falls apart. Soon enough, he finds himself somewhere else, as someone else, and begins a journey to find himself again as he's trained to fight on the Martian side in an upcoming invasion of Earth. To say anymore beyond that would be to drop too many spoilers, of course, but the story only gets stranger and more enthralling from there. As usual in Vonnegut's work, Constant's tale is full of kindness towards and criticism of humanity. A sort of idealistic cynicism still appreciating the beauty of the world and people amidst their innumerable uglinesses, all handled with a sense of humor. Funny, heartfelt, and both warm and cold, The Sirens of Titan says a great deal about people, and about life's many ironies and largely accidental nature. There are good ideas about love within the plot as well, and the meaning of life itself. Vonnegut's one of the few authors who could tackle issues such as these and come away with something so powerful and affecting, all while wrapping these ideas and themes up in a relatively pulp sci-fi core plot outline. A highly recommended read.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. When people think Douglas Adams, they usually tend to think of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Comparatively one of his lesser known series, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a strong start to Dirk Gently's comical adventures. Quite dark at times, amidst the absurdity, the story focuses on the abrupt murder of the president of an up and comic software company, Gordon Way, in the middle of the night. The earlier half of the book focuses largely on his demise, a mysterious time-traveler, and his employee Richard MacDuff's (The story's main protagonist) interactions with various people, including an old college professor and his girlfriend, Way's sister Susan. Seemingly unrelated events begin to connect as holistic detective Dirk Gently himself shows up halfway through the story and he and Richard embark on a wild journey to unravel the unlikely series of events behind the death of Gordon Way. And as you'd expect from Adams, it's a compelling, absurd, and highly enjoyable literary romp. I actually hadn't read any of Adams' works since I read the first Hitchhikers' Guide book when I was a kid (I hope to reread it eventually, along with the rest of the series, as I'd no doubt appreciate them even more now as an adult.), and at first, I was taken aback by the relatively slow pacing of the plot and the lack of clear interconnection between the events in the earlier half of the book, leaving me rather unsure of what to make of the story at that point. But once Gently showed up and things began to click together, the book became near-impossible to put down. If you're familiar with Adams' work - as all fans of science fiction and absurdist lit should be - you know this is one not to miss. I picked up the sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul recently as well, so I should be reading that soon enough.

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami. I just finished this collection of 17 Murakami short stories the other day. They're all varied in length, some a good 30-40some pages, others only a handful or two. An eclectic mix overall, some more humorous, some more dramatic, and some just absurd, the collection's a good sampling of enjoyable Murakami stories that'd be a solid introduction for anyone new to his work, an excellent way to get a feel for the way he writes, his sorts of characters and stories. "Sleep" reminded me a bit of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," which I read a couple of years ago in a Politics and Culture in Literature course I took in my last year of college. Both dealt with mental illness in focal female characters - in the case of Murakami's "Sleep," telling the story of a housewife who stops sleeping and begins to convince herself she no longer needs to sleep, as she spirals downwards. "The Dancing Dwarf" tells a surreal - and at times menacing - story of a dwarf that appears in an elephant factory worker's dreams that takes some horrifying turns by its conclusion. "A Slow Boat to China" tells several stories of a single character's cross-cultural experiences in interacting with Chinese people - an especially interesting read if you're aware of the history of Japan's interactions with the other cultures of Asia. And these are but a few of the odd tales that make up The Elephant Vanishes.

I'm not sure what I'm going to read next, but I'm thinking I'll probably sit down with Tom Robbins' Villa Incognito, the last remaining novel from those I got for Xmas last year. Of his works, I've only read his excellent Skinny Legs and All before. (Which was also part of the Politics and Culture in Literature course curriculum. It was a thoroughly enjoyable course, to say the least, full of good literature, movies, and discussion.)

At any rate, not a dud to be found in this batch of books. They're all well worth reading, and personally highly recommended it. I'll no doubt do more of these entries in the future discussing other books I've read and will have read by then as well. For those of you looking for good book recommendations, I hope this proved to be of some help to you, anyway. And here's to writing more entries of substance in here soon.


Anonymous said...

For some reason Haruki Murakami is ringing a bell with me. I've never read that book though. Perhaps he/she has written something else I've heard about. I do listen to coast to coast am, they talk about a lot of strange things.

Benjamin Fennell said...

Maybe so. He's one of Japan's best known and most prolific authors, and he's written quite a few tremendously acclaimed novels and short story collections - mostly surreal magical realist lit. Really interesting though. If you haven't read any of his works, they're certainly well worth checking out. He's an incredible author.