Friday, August 05, 2005

A Few Good Books

"You want me on that shelf! You NEED me on that shelf!"

Been reading a bit this summer. And listening to books on tape. Here's a rundown on my recent reads.

Catch-22. I know I wrote about this before, but I just want to say again that Joseph Heller's abusrdist look at the military (a microcosm for American society, turned up to 11 via life-and-death situations) is something to marvel at. It's very episodic, and completely disjointed in time, lulling the reader into a feeling that it's a collection of anecdotes loosely strung together, sort of like watching reruns of M*A*S*H on both TBS and the Hallmark channel, where TBS is still in the Trapper years and Hallmark is post-Radar. But then things start connecting. You might not ever realize it at first, since incidents are told from different points of view, and no one ever seems to get the full story. (Was that naked man in the tree during the funeral a hallucination? Must've been...)

The structure of the book is byzantine and rewarding, but the message ("War is stupid, and people are stupid," as Culture Club would say) is clear from the start, but gets reinforced gently at first, but then with greater and greater strength. The book is about power and aggression, a gigantic king-of-the-hill game of army against army, general against general against major against captain against sergeant. It begins amusing, and ends with desperation and brutality. Maybe the message is really "I fight authority, authority always wins." But despite the depression and the futility, there's hope in the fight. I still can't talk about it clearly, but for god's sake, read it.

Then there's The Cold Six Thousand, by James Ellroy. Man, is his writing easy to parody.

Ellroy writes. Ellroy types short sentences. Ellroy loves jive. Ellroy vibes cool. Ellroy uses racial epithets. Ellroy gut-punches readers. Ellroy works a knife around in the wound. Ellroy starts his book with Jack. Jack's in Dallas. Jack's a sitting duck. Jack's a dead man, and three guys are in the middle of it.

Ellroy tails them. They go to Vegas. They go to Vietnam. They go to Klan rallies and race riots. They plot. They undermine. They kill and age and get taken for chumps. They talk to J. Edgar Hoover. They see it all happen from the inside. Ellroy follows them through Martin. He follows them through Bobby. He watches. We watch. We see it all go down.

Good god, that's addictive. I listened to this book on tape, and the staccato sentences sometimes got on my nerves, but they set a wild, propulsive tone that never really lets go. Ellroy's one of my favorite writers, but I always need a break (and often a shower) after reading one of his books. His is not a head I want to spend too long in. If you're new to Ellroy, don't start with this one. American Tabloid introduces these characters. The Black Dahlia is also a good choice.

I also listened to Bushworld, by Maureen Dowd. It's a collection of her columns. I expected to like the more recent stuff more, as the seediness of the Bush White House has seeped into view, but it turns out the earlier columns were more illuminating. It's hard to put yourself in the mindset of a couple of years ago -- how do the older columns stack up against what we hazily remember from Pre-9-11 Bush? Otherwise, though, the book seemed repetitive and more than a little precious to me. Get it from the library and flip and skim. Don't overdose.

Probably the standout of the summer was A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey. This is a first-hand account of Frey's time in a rehabilitation center to recover from his addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine. Frey's writing style is immediate and brutally honest. I wasn't really expecting to like the book -- my brother Tom gave it to me and made me promise to read it, but the subject matter didn't interest me in the least. Shows what I know. Pieces grabbed me from the first page, and pulled me along through a ton of horrifying shit -- including a dental visit without the use of any painkillers that's about the worst thing I've ever heard about anyone actually enduring.

The best thing about the book is that you really do get a sense of Frey's struggle, but also of his accomplishments toward his recovery. He rejects a lot of the tried-and-true recovery methods -- AA's Twelve Steps -- and just pushes toward his goal with guts and determination. Along the way, he meets a number of interesting people -- chief among them is his friend Leonard, a connected wiseguy who's also getting clean. Frey's followup is called My Friend Leonard, and you can bet I'll read it as soon as it's in paperback. I can't recommend this highly enough. Thanks, Tom.

Those are my picks. Whaddya say, sirs?



Sharon GR said...

The best book I read this year was To Kill a Mockingbird. I never had to read it in high school, so Lisa Anne gave me a copy to make me read it. I finished it in about a day and a half.

I tried, tried to get through I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, but it's just not holding my attention. I enjoyed Bernard Cromwell's The Last Kingdom, but you have to be a fan of historical fictions to like his books. (Oh, and a couple books on preventing heart disease, which were good but not what you're looking for here!)

Rob S. said...

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird -- it's phenomenal. I love the movie with Gregory Peck, too.

Next up is more light reading for the beach -- probably another Kinky Friedman novel, perfect for the shore since the 3-in-1 compilation is just too damn heavy to lug back and forth to work every day.

Jeri said...

I'm sorry, but I must block your recommendations from my conscious mind, because my pile of library books comes to my knees, not to mention the books on hold at the library, the books in my queue at the library, the books I've borrowed from friends, the books I own and haven't finished, and finally, the books I own and haven't started.

Catch 22 actually falls in that last category, so it stands a good chance of being read before I die. If the library burns down.

Rob S. said...

Damn, Jer -- that's like TiVo for smart people.

Jeri said...

Actually, it's another manifestation of whatever my Netflix queue (now at 210!) represents.

Only this year did I give myself permission to read for pleasure. So I read for one hour a day, no more (because otherwise I'd never write), no less. And yes, I get to save up my hours because most days I just don't have the time (right now I'm 4 hours behind). As a result, I've read 31 books so far in 2005. Not bragging, it's just part of my job as a writer. I learn more from the crappy books than the good ones.

Anonymous said...

just getting up to speed with the last few months of your blog...
I am so happy you liked the book and I am sure you will like his sequel...although he gives away a bit from the first book on what comes in the second.
I will check out catch 22 - i have been meaning to read it for years.