5.05.2012

April Reading List: Burning Through Some Pages

Let’s get right down to it, shall we?
Reading List, April 2012
John Dies at the End - David Wong/Jason Pargin (Thomas Dunne Books edition, 2010) 480pp.
I remember first hearing about John Dies at the End back when it was first making the rounds on the internet—chapter by chapter. It was advertised all to hell on sites like Something Awful, and I had several people recommend it to me very aggressively. I promptly avoided it for years and years until I saw the trailer for the upcoming DOn Coscareli adaptation, and it jumped high onto my list of things that I needed to read.
And, you know, I’m genuinely glad that I did. Because John Dies at the End is just about as good as any SA Goon who you knew in college said that it is. It is a wildly entertaining horror story, by turns laugh out loud funny and genuinely hair-raising. Our protagonists of John and David are equally interesting, with their own little arcs and share a difficult friendship that is both believable and refreshing. The supporting cast also lends a lot to itself, and the plot is engaging and expansive. If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that it feels far too much like the first entry in a series (to be continued in this year’s This Book is Full of Spiders. Seriously Dude, Don’t Touch It) and the whole thing, while reaching some good resolution as far as the protagonists go, sort of just stutters to a close.
Still worth reading now that the sequel is nigh, especially if you’re a fan of horror comedy in the vein of Evil Dead II and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead/Dead Alive. Just be aware that you’re getting in at the start of something larger.
Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland – Patton Oswalt (Scribner, 2008) 208pp.
One of my favorite books of last year turned into an afternoon re-read this April. Oswalt stands as my favorite working comedian, so there was some initial curiosity as to how he would translate his work into a book, and I have to admit that I’m very glad at the result. A lot of comedians have a tendency to just translate their bits into a long monologue and write it down, and—while there is some of that here—Oswalt for the most part does something completely different.
Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland is primarily a book of genesis, an exploration of how Oswalt grew up and came into the popularity that he currently enjoys. The vignettes are often extremely funny, and frequently hyperbolic, but for the most part they have a bittersweet poignancy to them. These essays often feel like cherished formative memories, and like the best of those personal moments they are as often sad and painful as they are charming and reaffirming. Regardless, these sections are always relatable and worthwhile.
So I guess it’s somewhat less the laugh riot that I was expecting when I picked it up the first time, but it has proven to be something that I can revisit every once in a while, have fun with, and come away feeling like I got something that I needed. It might not be for everyone, but Zombie, Spaceship, Wasteland is a comedy essay book that is far more than anyone has any right to expect from the market.
The Night Sessions – Ken MacLeod (Pyr Books edition, 2012) 263pp.
Social science fiction is kind of hard (at least for me) and it doesn’t get any easier when you stumble upon an author who takes an idea that is so essentially simple, spins it into something unbelievably complex and nuanced, and then does a little dance on your feeling of self-worth by filling the resulting novels with wonderful, likeable characters and the kind of dramatic moments that make even the hardest of social and philosophical concepts seem like something that can be portrayed effortlessly in a Hollywood film.
So, Ken MacLeod, you’re awesome and I hate you. To everyone else: read this book. It is a rare, honest portrayal of the grand moral and philosophical spectrum that comprises organized religion and religious people—from the kind minded to the monstrous—without ever degrading any of them to the level of cartoon. It’s almost disgustingly good.
The Wind Through the Keyhole – Stephen King (Scribner, 2012) 320pp.
Seven years. That’s how long it’s been since Stephen King’s Dark Tower series “ended,” and first he managed to draw me back in through comics, and then movie rumors, and now a whole new book set between volumes Four and Five (Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla, respectively) of the original series. Please be aware, though, that the only part of this that is a complaint is the “seven years between books” bit. As far as I care, King can bundle me off to Mid-World as often as he wants forever.
Keyhole is pretty far from a good place to jump into The Dark Tower, but with something so sprawling there’s little choice but to start at the beginning. As a single entry, though, Keyhole is kind of a mixed bag. Much like Wizard & Glass before it, it takes place on the long road between Ludd and Cala Brynn Sturgis…where environmantal hazards force Roland and his ka-tet to hole up for safety and he shares a long story from his youth.
There’s some question of putting two novels of such similar construction next to one another, though I found myself receiving it a lot better this time out. The first time I read Wizard & Glass I completely overlooked the beauty and strangeness of it because I was frustrated that the strange and beautiful story that I was already reading had been pushed aside and rendered little more than a convenient bit of framing device for a four-hundred page flashback that brings the action of the series to a dead stop. Revisiting it after I had opportunity to finish the whole series granted me a new appreciation for the story that Roland tells, because I already knew what was coming on the other end of it. Without the urgency that I shared with the ka-tet to reach the Dark Tower, I was able to better take my time and see how Wizard & Glass was special. And, because I could afford to come to Keyhole from the same perspective, I really got to dig into it and enjoy it on its own. (though I still pity the first-time reader who now has to go through both books back to back)
So, while I don’t really have any personal problem with the story being built the way that it was, I do still have to admit some further disappointment…because by the time you get through the first seventy-five pages the novel has pretty much become Inception. We have our frame story of Old Roland and company holing up from the Starkblast, and you get the beginning of a good old fashioned gunslinger story about Young Roland hunting a shape-shifting beastie in the Outer Baronies, and then Young Roland sits down during at the start of his own wind storm and starts to tell another story to another character; a Mid-World fairytale called The Wind Through the Keyhole, which takes up the vast bulk of the book. Before you really know what you’re in for, you’re reading the story of a man telling a story about a time that he told a story, and telling that story too just for good measure. Ultimately, King makes it work, but it’s kind of ridiculous and a little meta even for this series.
Re-reading, this all sounds fairly negative, like the whole thing can only be enjoyed under certain circumstances. To some extent, I think that’s true, but it does an incredible disservice to the beauty of Mid-World and all of the incredible stories that take place there. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a series of completely different and completely captivating stories told on a variety of different scales, and each can be enjoyed by its own tone and merits: the initial frame is another short opportunity to spend time with the likes of Jake and Eddie and Oy, the Young Roland bit plays like classic Stephen King, and the fairytale portion? It reads like a lost chapter of The Talisman, and fairytales don’t get much better than that.
Screw it, forget my picking complaints. I’m an unrepentant Dark Tower junkie, and I love this book.
The Fall: The Strain Trilogy, Book II – Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan (William Morrow, 2010) 320pp. & read the first 150
I’ve not finished this one yet. Picked it up in the couple of days of April that were left after I finished Keyhole. I really enjoyed The Strain back in ‘09, finding it a really refreshing take on the traditional vampire mythos…and a fantastic rebuttal to the friggin’ Twilight books.
The second novel has, thus far, been pretty good in most ways, but there’s something off about it thus far. At the half-way point, there’s been little plot development and a lot of recapping of ideas covered in the first entry. As a middle chapter, it’s way off where it needs to be in the pacing department, but del Toro has well handled slow-burn stories in his films so I’m willing to wait until the end before I really pass full judgment on it.
Fuzzy Nation – John Scalzi (Tor, 2011) 304pp.
In a lot of ways, Fuzzy Nation is the first court-room drama that I’ve ever read. It’s gotten me to the point where I half-way want to go ahead and try another one or two, but I also know that no John Grisham will ever be half so much entertaining.
There are no gun-fights here, no space battles, no big-scale science fiction hardware shining in the light of a distant star. Sure, there’s some swearing…but almost nobody gets punched or stabbed. What you get instead is a hilarious and clever little book that neatly encapsulates some very big ideas in a great story that whips from start to finish at a pace so drastic, that even some of its array of smart-assed characters seem shocked to come to the end so soon.
Of all of the books here, this is the one that’s the most fun. It’s the only one that I can even begin to describe as gleeful. People should read it. That’s all I’m going to say about it.

Total Books: 5.5
Total Pages: 1,725
Next Month: Wrapping up The Fall and a couple of other things I’ve not finished.

-Sean

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