THE LIBRARY 2016
LIPSYNC FOR YOUR LIFE
(the year's best and worst)
It's time. Here, after long anticipation and back by popular demand, are the books that represent the highest of the high and the lowest of the low. We're sticking close to home this year with a selection of novels--one that gave me hope and one that just made me very, very sad--but not until after I got very, very angry. Who do I love and hate this year? Read on and find out! You're welcome and I'm sorry!
GRAND PRIZE WINNER!
Mr. Splitfoot - Samantha Hunt
I don't know what made me pick up Mr. Splitfoot in the first place because there was just so much I immediately loved about it. That snappy, creepy cover. The flap copy, about a pair of foster kids who spoke with the dead (or did they?!) in central New York--my old college stomping grounds--or the title itself, meaning the devil himself, and we all know how much I love a good Satanic novel. The book combined so many of my obsessions--cults! comets! the Internet!--that, sure, I was a little biased. But I'm not alone--this book got a drooling review from the biggest of the big, and it's 100% deserved. Also look at this fucking awesome interactive map of the meteorite sites from the book and if that isn't 21st century digital storytelling ingenuity then what is?!
The book seamlessly and brilliantly collects all these wild and weird premises, and Hunt tells it in such sharp, meant language. That NYTimes review references Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and the similarities go way past the books' plots--both Robinson and Hunt are meticulous writers. The work is apparent, but it's not restrictive or overdone--the language is understandable and new, precise and poetic. And the structure! Why tell a straight story when you could write a twisting one? Or a dual one? Or two always nearing curves that connect in a terrible climax no one could have guessed?
The music of Hall and Oates also makes a cameo.
OVERALL: IT'S AN EXCELLENT BOOK and it's out in paperback in 2 weeks! Go on and get one!
BUT WAIT! THERE'S MORE!
Over Labor Day weekend I went with Hub City to the Decatur Book Festival, which is all of a few hours from here and the largest independent book festival in the country! Party! There's the mascot, Bookzilla, and yes, there is a guy in a Bookzilla suit and no, I have not (yet) volunteered for the gig. I went to man the Hub City tent in the giant street festival and pet passing dogs (this year I managed 40+!), but there's all sorts of concurrent panels and talks and more bookish things than you can shake a book at.
This year I was lucky enough to see a panel called THE SUPERNATURAL IN FACT AND FICTION where Samantha Hunt would be speaking, along with Alex Mar, whose Witches of America is a must-read for all casual occultists like me and also anyone who appreciates great nonfiction.
Were there some witches in attendance? Yes. Was Samantha Hunt one of them? Of a sort, because she talked about the magic of writing and eyeballs (because think about it! Vision is nuts!) and her previous book, The Invention of Everything, which is all about Nikola Tesla, a similarly brilliant and curious quasi-mystic--who was a character in The Prestige, need I remind you, who was played by the most mystical genius wizard alien of all, David Bowie himself.
After the talk I went back to my post scouting for dogs to pet, and when Samantha Hunt walked by, I realized I'd been practicing on dog owners all day and just went over and said hello. And not only was she completely nice and grateful, but she did a supremely crazy thing and asked me what I was working on. And what I wrote. And I think I was so gobsmacked that she wanted to know that I said something like "Fiction but I mean your book was so good." It was such a generous thing to ask, and man, generosity can be in short supply when it comes to publishing--I know I was running low on it given the number of business cards and elevator pitches and Animal Anatomy coloring books I'd been handed during my time behind the Hub City table. (Please note: I have no power in these departments and I will tell you enthusiastically and earnestly to FOLLOW YOUR ANIMAL ANATOMY COLORING BOOK DREAMS but I can't do much more than cheer--I might be in the tent at DBF but I probably belong on the street with the dogs).
Was it the literary oversoul of the Decatur Book Festival that made this incredibly positive experience with Samantha Hunt occur? Was it our shared firsthand knowledge of the desolate endless winterlands that can be central--not upstate--New York? Is Samantha Hunt just a prime example of a kind writer? I don't know, but I tweeted during the talk and later on this happened:
Hunt has a book of short stories out later this summer and I have to clear my schedule right now to read this. I'll be pulling all my bookseller's strings to snag an ARC.
So congratulations to you, Samantha Hunt, and to all of you reading this, because we all deserve it after last year. And in the immortal words of RuPaul, I hereby decree that Samantha Hunt has fully earned and deserves the coveted edict:
SHANTAY YOU STAY.
The envelopes are in! I could say Mr. Splitfoot was the best novel I read, but there's another contender that simply cannot be ignored. So I'll say this: of all of the single volume novels I read, those being narratives whose stories were self-contained within an individual book, Mr. Splitfoot was the best.
But if we're talking about series, well. The rules shift a bit.
Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you:
THE VERY BEST AND VERY WORST BOOKS I READ THAT HAPPENED TO ALSO BE IN THE SAME SERIES THAT I DID INDEED ABANDON BECAUSE LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR THAT KIND OF FUCKERY.
Or: to the tune of "Candle in the Wind"
GOODBYE, STEPHEN KING
Though I never knew you at all!
Brief encounters with Stephen King
The Shining is just a better movie. That's all there is to it. I would love to be able to argue that it's a problem of form and that the two can't be compared, really--The Shining the novel is a wholly different beast than anything Kubrick ever even looked at (Room 237 is worth a watch and then another watch)--but I don't believe that. I read the book in high school seeking answers to the movie, and of course I was disappointed. I also read The Green Mile, which had a great image of old people fucking right at a tearjerker moment with the damn Lazarus mouse, and The Body, which had a great image of penises floating like "albino stalks" (paraphrased) as the boys skinny dipped. Stephen King, I decided, was kind of a dirty old man, but I was probably a frustrated little prude when I decided that. Regardless, in both cases, the adage was wrong and the movies were better than the books. So I watched IT but hell no, I didn't read it. That thing's like 700 pages WAIT I JUST LOOKED IT UP IT'S MORE LIKE 1200. I did read Carrie and On Writing for class in grad school and decided to give him another shot, so I went straight to the deep end and started The Stand. Note: I did not finish The Stand.
Overall I had made my peace with Mr. King. I stood by my theory: King is a great storyteller; often those stories make better movies than books.
Enter THE GUNSLINGER.
This is page one:
The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.
The desert was the apotheosis of all deserts, huge, standing to the sky for what looked like eternity in all directions. It was white and blinding and waterless and without feature save for the faint, cloudy haze of the mountains which sketched themselves on the horizon and the devil-grass which brought sweet dreams, nightmares, death.
What fresh hell is this? And how do I learn more about this place? Hellish, definitely, but it feels fresh, too--something new and unique and singular and unlike anything. Part spaghetti Western, part post-apocalyptic nightmare hellscape--all epic, all mythic, all delivered without an ounce of explanation. Where the fuck in time are we? Who is the man in black? What exactly is going on here?!
Not to mention these sentences! King is totally committed to the reality of this completely made-up world--brutish but beautiful. Even the littlest moments receive full attention: Above, the stars were unwinking, also constant. Suns and worlds by the million...He dropped a rabbit out of his sleeve, all gutted and ready for the pot.
I felt utterly transported and happily wrong--all this time, I'd been reading the wrong Stephen King. I'd be a Dark Tower fan, and what luck! I had all 7 volumes at my disposal.
There is a type of sustained excitement that comes from the very specific experience of beginning a new book series. You have so much to look forward to, and because you're late to the craze, you don't have those maddening endless waits between installments--this seemed to be the main complaint about The Dark Tower, not to mention some other very long popular fantasy books. But not for me! I could binge all seven! It was going to be great. Seven whole books of this lucid prose--I'd learn what the hell Manni was, and In-World, and what about the jawbone??!
I picked up Book 2, The Drawing of the Three.
There's only one word needed to review this book. It's a word Stephen King made up. It's a word that appears something like 648 times in The Drawing of the Three. It is the name of the main antagonist of all 500 of these mass market paperback pages. It is--vocab lesson--a portmanteau.
The Drawing of the Three is NOTHING LIKE The Gunslinger even though the title character--the guy slinging guns--is back. He wakes up on a beach where there are these genuinely freaky flesh-tone evil snapping crustacean things that sway and chitter and promptly fuck him up, hard--bro loses two fingers in the first ten pages--and he falls through some inter-dimensional door to create a band of comrades as promised in some mythological hoodoo curse bequeathed at the end of the last book. Or something.
What this means, though, is we are no longer in Vast and Ragged Dreamy Surreal Landscape World of Maybe Another Dimension. We're in New York City in the 1980s and we're about to meet a heroin addict named Eddie whose gotta a lotta trouble with his dope habit, knowwhaddaI'msayin? But there's some time travel, too, so we also meet a schizophrenic paraplegic Civil Rights movement martyr named Odetta, but you don't need to remember that because she's Susannah by the next book and married to Eddie the (reformed) addict. Spoilers.
As one gracious Goodreads reviewer puts it, "While the first volume had kind of a dreamy and surreal quality to it, this second book is all tense action with a more grounded vibe thanks to the trips to a world the reader recognizes."
MORE GROUNDED? A WORLD I RECOGNIZE? NO THANK YOU! I am not reading the dang Dark Tower series to be reminded of the shitstorm of a world I currently inhabit. Where was my fantasy epic? Where was the mountain range or cave or oh--oh wait, now we're back on the beach and--yes, it seems the lobstrosities are going to be a challenge in this chapter. And the next one. And the next. And a few more after that.
Eventually our heroes start eating the lobstrosities. Did I mention how often this book includes the word lobstrosities?
I managed to finish The Drawing of the Three, even though it was not only phenomenally boring, pedestrian, and cliche, it was objectively bad. The book references the film version of The Shining, which I'm sure King intended as some real world meta Tower-esque dimensional collapse winky winky, but which strikes me as straight up sloppy writing. Sure, Eddie the character would think in terms of popular movies, but I don't want to be reading about Eddie in the first place. Eddie doesn't interest me. Eddie is about to get caught up in all kinds of complex universe-saving trouble, but I don't need an every-man holding my hand in this new scary world. Show me the scary world! I can take it!
I started the third book, The Waste Lands, which was actually fairly promising--a giant cyborg bear gives our merry ragtag band a real scare!--but then, somewhere around page 200, Eddie realizes he is in some version of Lord of the Rings and hollers,
"Ho ho let's go! Bring on those wise fuckin elves!"
YEAH MAN! WOO! ELVES! At this point, I'd already clocked the book for being too much like Lord of the Rings if only for the fantasy trope of unending questing: travel, make camp, build fire, eat, sleep, travel, make camp, build fire, on and on forever.
So I gave up. I would not be reaching the Dark Tower, after all. In retrospect, maybe I just really, really hated Eddie.
I had also picked up a copy of The Shining. I was thinking about tracking down the terrible TV miniseries that I remembered watching as a kid (and I still might) and comparing all three, but I thumbed through the paperback and it was just so many words. Paired with the memory of my disappointing high school read (but WHY is there a man in a bear suit? WHO IS HE?), I not only decided not to revisit the Overlook, but I forswore the whole King canon. The heartbreak of The Dark Tower was just too fresh!
I have heard a lot of authors tell aspiring young writers to "Read everything" and for the most part, this is a great strategy. But I also think becoming a critical reader means winnowing out the shit you just can't abide--on the condition that you understand why you can't abide it. And I know why I don't like King (other than my petty jealousy that he is the reigning master of horror when there is so much other better horror out there)--but I won't foist that over-analysis on you. He just ain't for me, that's all.
So, again in the words of RuPaul, Stephen King, I'm sorry, but it's time for you to SASHAY AWAY.
Who is for me, then? Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, both of whom have been cast in the upcoming film version of The Dark Tower. Here's hoping the first installment is a winner--I can't look forward to the books, but there's always the movies.
And Idris Elba as a post-apocalyptic cowboy? Be still my heart.
SO CONCLUDES THE LIBRARY 2016.
Did you love this? Did you hate it? Do you want more?
Until next year, happy reading, take care of yourself, and let the music play!