Update: what I've been reading.

First-person introductory paragraph: good lord, you guys. My reading habits have become a complete shambles over the last few months. I'm not necessarily a one-book-at-a-time sort of person all the time, but more often than not, I am. Occasionally I might get into a second book that I feel needs to be given priority, generally pausing in the first book and returning to it when the second book is done. Sometimes the first book gets shunted aside completely, but that's rare. Lately, though, all of this has been turned upside down. I've been participating in multiple book clubs, some of which read multiple books in each month, and, as always, buying way more books in any given time period than I have time to read. Combine that with my relentlessly expanding blogroll, the half-dozen or so magazines I attempt to follow, and my ballooning comic book subscription list, and what I've got on my hands is a full-scale onslaught of reading material, one that I'm completely incapable of keeping up with. At some point in April, I cracked under the strain--I blame Hunter S. Thompson's gargantuan collection of correspondence, "Fear And Loathing In America," about which more below--and found myself haphazardly reading 10 to 20 pages at a time in at least half a dozen different books. My mood, and therefore my desire for reading material, would change hourly, and I quit trying to keep my reading queue orderly and gave in entirely to my whims. Thus, in addition to the books you'll read about below, all of which I have finished in the last two months, I've also read portions of at least half a dozen other books, including a few I read a long time ago and was rereading (these were mostly short story collections by Harlan Ellison--see my recent post entitled "Dreams With Sharp Teeth." Sorry, no hyperlink, but it's gotta still be on the front page). Furthermore, I've delved into lengthy essays from blogs and magazines, 6 to 12 months of comic backlog, and I still have at least half a dozen half-read books kicking around my room that I have every intention of getting too ASAP. So uh, I'll keep you guys posted, but as of right now my reading habits are a total disaster, and the intermittent nature of these book posts will probably continue to reflect that. I just hope the quality of the writeups won't.

A Preferred Blur, by Henry Rollins
Henry Rollins' books of his collected journal entries become both more intriguing and more depressing as the years go on. There's still plenty of awesome travel writing and observations on politics and humanity in this book, as in all of them, but the more personal moments of this book were particularly tough on me. I guess there are two different reasons why that is: one being that I can relate pretty heavily to a lot of Rollins's issues with social interaction, whether it be with friends, girl...more Henry Rollins' books of his collected journal entries become both more intriguing and more depressing as the years go on. There's still plenty of awesome travel writing and observations on politics and humanity in this book, as in all of them, but the more personal moments of this book were particularly tough on me. I guess there are two different reasons why that is: one being that I can relate pretty heavily to a lot of Rollins's issues with social interaction, whether it be with friends, girls he is attracted to, or total strangers; the other being that, as someone who is a longtime fan of all Rollins' work, I've come to care about him as a person and I hate to read that he's having so many troubles with depression. Also, it's kind of hard to see him dealing with those issues the way he does; in this book, he talks often about how he has to minimize his time around people he cares about, how he can't even allow himself to maintain communication with women he's attracted to and DEFINITELY can't ever get into another romantic relationship, and how he can never let himself get too comfortable at home, because as soon as he gets comfortable or feels safe with someone he feels like he's opening himself up to be hurt. I can see the logic behind this strategy, especially coming from someone who has never completely recovered from having his best friend shot right in front of him (he talks extensively about his depression over Joe Cole's murder in this book, which was written 16 years after it happened). But I just can't feel all that good about it, because I feel like the man is depressed either way, and he operates on the assumption that a minimum level of depression is unavoidable and he has to function in a certain way that minimizes human contact that he might enjoy at the time. He sees all such contact as an inevitable path to even deeper levels of depression in the future, and again, I can understand that logic--it's often been that way for me too. But a lot of this book just reads like the thought process of someone who has given up on ever finding personal happiness, and that just bums me out. I don't want to think that that's what someone I have a great deal of admiration for will be feeling for the rest of his life, and--considering how much I relate to a lot of the feelings he describes--I certainly don't want to believe that this is what waits for me in the future. Reading this book was hard, mainly because it made me think that the only reason I haven't quite given up yet is because I'm somewhat younger than Rollins. I don't want to believe that but it seems frighteningly plausible.

I don't want this review to make this entire book seem like some miserable slog of a read, because it isn't. There are definitely parts of the book that are enjoyable in the extreme, and I think if I had been able to separate more from the parts about depression, I could have enjoyed reading them more than I did. Really, though, this book is quite a different animal from Rollins's more comedy-oriented spoken word performances, and fits a lot more closely with the dark, heavy lyrics he used to write for the Rollins Band and Black Flag. Well worth your time if you enjoy Rollins' writing, but go into it expecting a heavy emotional trip, because that's what you're going to get.

The Forest Of Hands And Teeth, by Carrie Ryan
This is an incredibly engaging book. I tore through it in less than one full day. It's a young adult novel, so it wasn't exactly heavy reading, but I never felt like I was reading something that was written below my level, and in fact, Carrie Ryan seems to have quite a bit of writing talent, not just where plotting and characterization are concerned (though she's certainly no slouch in either of these departments), but on a level of individual sentence and paragraph construction.

"The Forest Of Hands And Teeth" is a new take on the zombie novel, which has become a rather popular subgenre in recent years. Rather than concentrating on the zombie apocalypse, as every book about the subject that I've ever read has done, "The Forest Of Hands And Teeth" takes place several generations after the coming of the zombies (referred to as "The Unconsecrated" in the book), in a town with a strong fence surrounding it, outside of which lies the forest of the title. The forest is filled with zombies, which never seem to rot or lose their energy, instead continuing to "live" in the forest and representing a constant threat to the inhabitants of the village. This has caused the village's social structure to adapt, and the inhabitants now live in a manner similar to the Puritans of the 17th century. The cathedral is the social nexus of the town, and is inhabited by the Sisterhood, who preserve the history of the town. Marriage and continuation of familial lines is paramount to the preservation of the town--said by the Sisterhood to be ordained by God, in order to keep humanity alive in the face of the Unconsecrated.

This book is told from the point of view of Mary, a young woman of marrying age who longs to visit the ocean, even as she's told by most of the village that this is not possible, that they are the only humans left and must stay within their village forever. Mary's hand in marriage is desired by Harry, but she loves Harry's brother Travis. After the death of her parents at the beginning of the story, and after Mary hesitates to accept Harry's marriage offer, Mary's brother Jed forces her out of their family home, and she is forced to join the Sisterhood, the one fate she wanted least. However, once in the Sisterhood, Mary begins to learn more about the history of humankind as a whole and the village in particular, and begins to think that many secrets have been kept by the Sisterhood from her and the rest of the village's inhabitants. What she ends up discovering turns her world upside down, but I don't want to explain further, as there are many twists and turns of the plot in this book, and it would be easy to spoil one or another of them. Suffice it to say that the story moves farther and faster than I ever expected based on the first few chapters of the book, and stays entertaining and unpredictable throughout. I'm not sure if there'll be a sequel, though the ending leaves it open, but if there is one, I'll definitely pick it up. And even if there isn't, I'm very interested to see what else Carrie Ryan writes in the future. This book, her debut, is enough to convince me that she's very talented.

A Test Of Wills, by Charles Todd
I read this book a few weeks ago but have been doing a poor job of maintaining my goodreads page and so am only reviewing it now. I don't have a perfectly formed review in my mind the way I might have if I'd written about it the day I finished it, but I can remember enough to know that I quite enjoyed it. This is the first in a series of mysteries by Charles Todd, which take place in England in the immediate aftermath of World War I. Ian Rutledge has returned home to reclaim his job as a homicide detective, but he's shellshocked from the war and now suffers a persistent aural hallucination--the voice of one of his now-dead comrades, Hamish MacLeod, speaking to him from over his shoulder. Rutledge knows that Hamis is a delusion, but this knowledge alone is not enough to chase him away, and so he must spend all of his time being careful not to respond to Hamish's non-existent voice in the presence of other people.

Meanwhile, he's still trying to solve murders, such as the one he's sent to investigate in "Test Of Wills," of a retired Colonel. The details of the plot were interesting and unpredictable enough to keep me guessing until the very end, but what I enjoyed most about this book was not so much any of the whodunit aspects but more the characterizations of Rutledge, the suspects in the murder case, and even Hamish, Rutledge's imagined partner. Todd creates a dark atmosphere around all of these people, and shows us the more sordid aspects of their lives, which is a lot of what makes the murder's solution so tough to predict--so many of the characters seem like they could have done it. Perhaps its morbid or pessimistic of me, but I really enjoy reading books that come from as dark a perspective as this one, and I look forward to checking out more of the Charles Todd mysteries.

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
So this week my book club read "Starship Troopers." I of course read it when I was 12 and a few times since, none since I was in 9th grade or so. I loved it as a pre-teen. Going back to it, though, kinda ruined it. What I--and most of the book club--realized was that the society depicted within the book is basically fascist, and that there's a lot of Heinlein philosophizing scattered throughout, in which he makes absurd claims like that the juvenile delinquent scare of the 50s was caused by parents not spanking their children enough. The parts that are a space adventure/war story are still pretty good, but they are hugely overshadowed by all the ersatz philosophy. I didn't remember this at all, but nearly a quarter of the book is devoted to lectures in which Heinlein "proves" various theories based on an imagined future history that doesn't even remotely resemble what has happened in the 50 years since this book came out. And thank god, because this would be a military-run fascist society by now if it had.

The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett
At a time when I was already in the middle of several other books (just as I am right now), the bookstore where I work got a shipment of new books in, and this one looked fascinating to me. I dropped everything else I was reading in order to blow through this book in about three days, and I never regretted it for a second. At first glance, "The Writing Class" might seem like a standard cozy mystery, one structured in a similar manner to the endless craft mysteries pumped out by Berkeley Prime Crime month after month. This is far from the truth, though. For one thing, the book's mystery elements seem more secondary than like the primary focus of the book. What this story is really about is a writing class, as detailed mostly from the perspective of its teacher, a middle-aged writer named Amy Gallup who hasn't published a novel in 20 years and does editing work from home in order to pay the bills. She doesn't need the pay from teaching the writing class, but she does it as a way to have regular contact with people other than herself. The group that takes her class in the fall semester of 2007 is unusually interesting, and includes a prankster with a mean streak that gets more vicious with each passing class.

To tell you any more of the plot than this would be criminal, and with that in mind, please do not read the back of this book, as it spoils something that happens two-thirds of the way through it. But do read this book, as it is full of fascinating characters that are lifelike and multi-dimensional, and who have very entertaining interactions. There's also some interesting stuff about the art and craft of writing, which you the reader may find yourself learning alongside the students in the writing class. Perhaps my favorite element of this book was its casual but effective realism; none of the characters are living perfectly happy, fulfilled lives, but none of them seemed like overly maudlin sufferers, either. They just come across as real people, with the sorts of ups and downs that play out in normal lives.

I wouldn't consider "The Writing Class" to be literary in any real way, but I do feel like it's an incredibly well-written book. A lot of more literary writings that I've read in my life have seemed almost to beat you over the head with their brilliance. They may be full of beautiful sentences, but those sentences almost seem to get in the way of the story they're telling. In "The Writing Class," Jincy Willett displays a much more subtle form of talent, writing quietly eloquent sentences full of intelligence and wit that could escape a reader's notice completely if they weren't looking for them. She proves that a writer doesn't have to write a big, important book to display a ton of talent. This is only her third book in over 20 years; here's hoping she writes more soon.

Fear And Loathing In America: The Gonzo Letters Volume II, 1968-1976, by Hunter S. Thompson
This huge tome of Hunter Thompson's correspondence took me approximately two months to read, but that doesn't mean that I didn't like it. In fact, I enjoyed it quite a bit. However, the format leant itself to being put down for extended periods of time before returning to it. There's not much of any connection or narrative flow between one letter and the next, and most of the time, the other half of Thompson's correspondence is not reproduced here, so the reader is left to guess at what exactly has inspired him to hurl invective at this person or that one. That's most of what he does in this book, too--hurl invective, both at people he likes and people he's sincerely angry with. His correspondence with Oscar Acosta is full of such rancor, and moves over the course of the book from seeming like good-natured bickering between friends to real animosity. One wonders if Thompson and Acosta would have worked out their differences over time, were it not for the latter's untimely disappearance.

It's a lot of fun to read each individual letter, especially the lengthier ones that delve into more complicated thought processes that Thompson was working through at various stages of completing books or articles. There are several detailed outlines herein for books that were never completed, all of which are entertaining, but also of course frustrating due to the fact that we can't go read those books in full. There are also many interesting arguments back and forth between Thompson and his various publishers, in which we learn his exact feelings (generally predictable but hilarious fury) about the various edits and bowdlerizations he was forced to suffer throughout his career. It becomes clear that Thompson always took his writing very seriously, and had a lot invested in his work being read exactly the way he intended. He also got very frustrated with those who saw his "gonzo" style as just an excuse to make shit up. As far as Thompson was concerned, he was telling the truth in all of his pieces, even if he didn't always use a format that was approved by standard journalists of the time.

I wouldn't really recommend reading this book to anyone who isn't well-versed in Hunter S. Thompson's writing career; in order to be most properly enjoyed, the reader should probably already be familiar with "Hell's Angels," "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas," "Fear And Loathing On The Campaign Trail 72," and "The Great Shark Hunt," as work that ended up in all four of these books is discussed in detail here. As I said, not that much information is given to the reader outside of the actual text of the letters, so it'll be a lot harder to keep up if you haven't read those books. If you have, though, and you're interested in an even deeper examination of Thompson's life and mindset during that period of his career, "Fear And Loathing In America" will provide you with a very entertaining read. And honestly, you'll probably be better off setting it aside every now and then and cleansing your palate with something a bit lighter before returning. Trying to take this whole book in one fell swoop would probably amount to biting off more than one can chew.

Consider The Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
I took a long time to finish this book, primarily because it was a set of essays and I often took breaks inbetween them. Also, because I've been reading way too many books at once lately, which has led me to feeling overwhelmed and then ignoring all of the books I'm reading in favor of starting yet more new ones, or just reading magazines and comic books, or rereading stuff I've already read... whatever, the point is that it took me forever to finish this book, but absolutely NOT because it wasn't amazing. It is amazing, just like "Infinite Jest" is amazing. It seemed like it would be a complete departure from that brobdingnagian novel, simply by virtue of the difference between formats, but I ended up finding a lot of common threads between the two. Now that David Foster Wallace is, unfortunately, no longer with us, I feel a bit more confident in describing certain of his themes as universal to all of his work, and it seems like those universal themes were just as present in his essays as collected here as they were in his magnum opus, "Infinite Jest." Asking me to specify the themes might result in a bit of evasion though, really just because I'm afraid that I'll describe them badly enough that I end up being wrong. But what the hell: sincerity, compassion, the desire among all humans (and maybe even non-humans) to connect with one another, to feel part of something greater than oneself. This shows up in all sorts of places in this book, from DFW's profile of a right-wing radio talk show host (John Ziegler, he of more recent "How Obama Got Elected" fame), to his review of a dictionary of English usage, to his description of two weeks spent on the campaign trail with John McCain during his 2000 run for president. And in fact, it seems like Wallace's main beef with the John Updike novel he reviews negatively in this collection is its protagonist's narcissistic inability to connect with anyone/anything other than himself/his penis. A lot of times, I see reviewers make allusions to some sort of post-modern ironic-detachment sensibility when they write about David Foster Wallace's oeuvre, and I must conclude that these people just don't get it. If anything, I see DFW's writing as coming from an anti-ironic-distance perspective. He wants us to talk more, and more honestly, with each other. And in light of his depression and ultimate suicide, it seems to me (though I may be overstepping my bounds here) that this impulse in his writing stemmed from a desire to talk openly and honestly, and make connections, with those around him. I don't know if it'd be any comfort at all, but he connected with me when I read "Infinite Jest," and I'd say he's connected even more with this fascinating and brilliant collection of essays.

Burning Fight: The 90s Hardcore Revolution In Ethics, Politics, Spirit And Sound, by Brian Peterson
I feel compelled to give this book four out of five stars simply by virtue of its existence. As someone who grew up in the 90s hardcore scene, who found the whole era to be vital and fascinating, to be filled with musical experimentation and growth on personal and community levels, I've always hated the standard line about how hardcore died in 1986 (or whenever Steven Blush said), about how it just got easier to be a hardcore kid after that, and the music therefore got worse and the kids got wimpier. That's damn near the opposite of my personal experience of the 90s scene, and I've long wanted to write my own book debunking that personal myth. So I'm very glad that Brian Peterson got the ball rolling with his book. That said, I don't feel like "Burning Fight" obviates my own need to write a book about the subject, because the fact is that this one just isn't that good. Peterson, who ironically teaches high school English, is not what I'd consider a good writer, and I'd even feel like I was gilding the lily a bit to call him mediocre. Fact is, the guy is a barely capable wordsmith whose thankfully infrequent interjections of narrative read like the sort of high school senior thesis that might get you a B if your teacher grades on a curve. The passages Peterson wrote for the book are as free of insight as they possibly could be, and tend to explain band after band, movement after movement, in the same tired language. I swear Peterson mentions the Bad Brains and the Cro-Mags as sonic references for at least a dozen different bands, none of whom sound anything alike. It seemed at least somewhat legitimate when he first said it about 108, who are first in the alphabetically-ordered section of interviews with various bands; 108 were definitely influenced hugely by both of those bands. When he brought the same two bands up 300 pages later in a discussion of Unbroken, though, I damn near threw the book across the room. It's lazy writing, pure and simple. And to expand on that theme, 90% of the book is structured like an oral history, leaving the bands and kids who were there to fill in the gaps and provide insight into the subjects that Peterson doesn't explore in any depth himself. It's the luck of the draw as to how much insight the quotes provide, and for every intelligent, well-spoken person in the book, such as Jes Steineger of Coalesce, Vic DiCara of 108, or Norman Brannon of Texas Is The Reason, there are 20 more people whose quotes serve only to demonstrate how little thought they've given to the questions Peterson is asking. Sometimes two quotes on the same page about the same subject will have completely contradictory viewpoints, and while this is interesting in that it shows the multiplicity of opinions and perceptions in the scene at the time, it ruins the narrative framework of the section and makes it very hard to understand what sort of conclusion we're supposed to draw. I feel like a lot of the reason that I was able to get something out of this book was because I was there during those times myself, and could add what new information "Burning Fight" provided me to my own memories, knowledge, and insight. It helped me complete my picture of the scene during that era, but if I were coming into this book with no foreknowledge of the time, I don't know how accurate or fleshed-out the picture I'd get would be.

One thing's for sure: the 30 or so band interviews that make up the lion's share of this book, while doing even more to completely undermine any narrative framework established in the more universal opening chapters than was already done in those chapters themselves, were far more interesting, insightful, and entertaining than the opening sections. While the opening chapters were the sort of slog that I only endured because I was having trouble admitting how far short of my expectations this book had fallen, the band interviews were very interesting and kept my attention throughout. Really, though, they made this book far more like a big fat zine than any real history of an era, and if you want a book that really does a great job of encapsulating 90s hardcore on that level, you're better off with Norman Brannon's "The Anti-Matter Anthology." Or, perhaps, the book about all of this that I'm gonna write in another few years. [Famous last words.]



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