Adventures in Dementia


Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

Become What You Are

Tropper everythingCriticizing Jonathan Tropper for representing one specific worldview is sort of like criticizing The Ramones for not using a string section.  Yet that’s usually what I hear when criticism is levied against him: his stories are too white, too male, too thirtysomething anxious.  If there’s any discussion about whether or not he deals with those things well, it’s often tinged with condescension about the perspectives he’s not representing.  Which, I have to say, makes little sense to me.  Just because Tropper writes from (and about) the perspective of an approaching-middle-age white dude doesn’t mean he’s discounting the struggles of anyone else in the world.  It’s criticism of omission; rather than engaging with where he has or hasn’t succeeded, it’s condemnation based on what he hasn’t tried to do at all because it wouldn’t be appropriate for the stories he’s telling.

I mean, look: it’s clearly important we keep our own struggles in perspective.  At no point do I believe that my anxiety at getting older can hold a candle to the mind-numbing terror felt by people experiencing ethnic genocide – or even people who simply struggle day to day to make ends meet.  But it’s my anxiety, and no matter how much I try to empathize with others, I still have to come home and deal with my own head.  So as soon as we start saying, “Well, this novel is inferior because the main character’s problems are relatively small potatoes compared to what other people in the world are dealing with,” we’re just competing in the Olympics of Misery, where the person with the saddest story wins and everyone else loses, seeing their own personal struggles diminished in the process.  I’d like to think I can enjoy Tropper and Richard Wright, thank you very much, and that just because I identify with the travails of schlubby white guys, that doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the plight of women and minorities.  And, I should add, just because one author chooses to write about schlubby white guys doesn’t mean other people’s struggles are automatically minimized.  I’m not sure where this notion came from that every work of art has to be the United Nations, but here we are.

I say all this because Everything Changes, the fifth of Tropper’s books I’ve read, is just as funny and truthful as the other four, even if it does continue to plow a similar furrow as the others.  This time around, Zack, a – you guessed it – thirtysomething white guy, is stuck in a job he hates, engaged to a woman he adores but doesn’t love, and secretly pines for the widow of his best friend.   On the same day his estranged father shows up on his doorstep after fifteen years, Zack sees blood in his urine and is faced with the prospect of a cancer diagnosis.  He uses the convergence of all these events – health, father, shitty job, engagement party – to make some drastic changes in his life, only he does so in the most passive way possible: by generally doing nothing, choosing instead to let his disengagement take care of things on its own.

There are a lot of the usual Tropperisms his fans will recognize and new readers will enjoy.  First and foremost, we get self-aware, smart-alecky dialogue spoken by well-drawn characters that verge on the realistic without quite making the jump to people we’d be likely to meet in everyday life.  In addition to Zack there’s his well-read punk-rock brother Matt; his other brother, the mentally impaired Peter; his self-sacrificing mother Lela; Norm, the wayward, Viagra-popping father; Jed, a self-made millionaire who’d rather stay home and watch TV; Hope, the too-perfect fiancée; and Tamara, the widow to whom Zack would rather be engaged.

And like Tropper’s other novels, this one does feature some sequences that verge on sitcom territory – a punchup at the engagement party, a disastrous encounter with a groupie, a golf course confrontation with a doctor – but the hallmark of Tropper’s work is the way he’s able to weave threads of genuine insight into a tapestry of broad comedy.  Zack has this realization in the book’s final third:

This is what happens.  You piss blood one day and it somehow makes you think that maybe your life isn’t taking shape the way it’s meant to and, at thirty-two years old, if you’re going to be making any changes, you had best make them come quick.  So you give it a whirl, and it’s like trying to make a ninety-degree turn in a speeding boat, and the whole thing just flips over, and you’re submerged in the frigid, churning waters, bobbing roughly in your own broken wake.  And no matter which way you turn your desperate gaze, there’s absolutely no land in sight, which is strange, because you didn’t think you’d gone out that far to begin with.

Is the sensation of feeling lost in the way Zack feels lost only the province of characters like him – the thirty-year-old middle-class white dudes?   I’d argue not, and it feels to me like anyone getting hung up on the demographics of Tropper’s protagonists are ignoring – maybe willfully – the universality of his work.  We all wrestle with family dynamics, we all feel ambivalence about the people we love, we all – at one time or another – find work boring and life unsatisfying.  Are these seismic struggles, the kind that change lives in an instant?  Of course not.  But they are the kind that leave hairline fractures in the foundation, the ones that accumulate over time and, if not remedied, can reduce lives to rubble.

Current listening:

Beautiful carry

The Beautiful South – Carry on up the Charts: The Best of The Beautiful South (1995)

No Medicine for Regret


I got lazy.

How else to explain the sudden absence of book reviews after dutifully posting 1,000ish words for the first twelve titles that comprise the beginning of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project?

Long story short: I’m reading too fast to comfortably devote the time to writing.

The project, however, is ongoing.  For the curious, here are the books I’ve read in the last month, accompanied by a one-sentence review, because I’m all about customer service.

Jonathan Maberry – Ghost Road Blues. The first book in a trilogy, it’s the sound of one of my favorite horror writers still finding his voice.

David Nicholls  – One Day. Forget what you’ve heard about the movie, this book reduced me to tears in the middle of a hotel bar in Alexandria, VA.

Tim O’Brien  – In the Lake of the Woods. Lyrical and perplexing, it’s a mystery without resolution, which still ended up being completely satisfying.

Chuck Palahniuk – Tell-All.  To tolerate Palahniuk you have to buy into each book’s gimmick, which I just couldn’t do with this underwhelming quasi-screenplay.

Ian Rankin  – Strip Jack.  Another dazzling mystery based in the everyday lives of its Scottish characters, featuring John Rebus, the intriguingly rumpled sleuth.

David Sedaris – Holidays on Ice. Thoroughly disappointing and unexpectedly, frustratingly mean-spirited.

Jonathan Tropper – The Book of Joe. Another winner about a shaggy-dog thirtysomething protagonist coming to terms with his past.

Kurt Vonnegut – Palm Sunday.  It’s Vonnegut, which means it’s worth reading, but there’s no doubt that this pseudo-autobiography comprised of previously published nonfiction is a minor effort.

Elmore Leonard – The Big Bounce. Leonard’s first crime novel is sharp in all the right ways, and features the template of clueless men and whip-smart women that he’d use and use again in future books.

Teddy Wayne – The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. After an extremely shaky beginning, this book about a Bieber-esque child singer coming to terms with the adults in his life grew on me.

And that brings me up to date.  Full reviews may return if I can find the time and the motivation, or I may just check in periodically with brief recaps like this one.


Current listening:

Archers all

Archers of Loaf – All the Nations Airports (1996)