Thursday, December 29, 2011

VALIS by Philip K. Dick

Here are some things that Philip K. Dick believed (or said that he believed) had happened to him:
*In 1974 a pink light flashed down into his eyes, imparting information from a supreme intelligence.
*The pink light told him that his son had a life-threatening medical condition. When he convinced the son's doctor to investigate, the information proved to be true, and his son's life was saved.
*He later spoke in what proved to be koine Greek, a language he had never learned.
*He could see 1st century A.D. Rome superimposed on modern California, and became convinced that time had stopped and that the modern world was not reality.
*He felt that he was also a man named Thomas, living in 1st century Rome.
*He thought that Richard Nixon was, in reality, a Roman emperor, and his downfall was brought about by the ruling intelligence with the pink light.
*For the last eight years of his life, he wrote an 8,000-page exegesis (explanation) of what he thought his visions meant, drawing on information from philosophers, ancient religious beliefs, and the Bible.

VALIS is a fictionalized autobiographical account of his quest to find the answers. In the opening pages, speaking as Phlip K. Dick, he says of the main character, Horselover Fat, "I am Horselover Fat, and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity." He then inserts himself into the story, as Horselover Fat's best friend. For the remainder of the novel, then, Dick essentially argues with himself about whether or not the occult experiences actually occurred or whether they were only products of a confused and sick mind. Many strange events occur which could support either viewpoint. The two parts of Dick come together briefly toward the end, when both parts believe in the visions, but then he splits apart again.

Either Dick went to great lengths to perpetuate a myth about himself and his experiences (doubtful), or he was mentally ill, desperately trying to distinguish reality from delusion. Some may even believe that he had a true vision of reality, denied to most of us.

Whatever the case, Dick certainly had done much reading to explain his illuminations. After about 30 pages I realized I did not have the background knowledge to understand his references, so I spent a couple of hours on the internet looking things up. (If "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," I am a very dangerous person, because I have a little knowledge about a lot.) Here are some of the things I had to look up: gnosticism, Zoroaster, Rosicrucians, the Dogan people, St. Sophia, and Ikhnaton. I could have looked up more, but there is just so much effort I am willing to spend on a 226-page "science fiction" book.

This book's schizophrenic narration is mind-unsettling. It is certainly interesting and led me to know a little about a lot of subjects I didn't know about before. Ultimately, it just seemed to me to be a very sad look into an intelligent, seriously damaged mind.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Little, Big by John Crowley

After reading a string of somewhat depressing books in a row, I decided to pull out an old favorite that I knew would not depress me. This is not a feel-good book exactly; it is more a magical book that completely transports me to another reality, and I can feel its lingering presence for days afterward.

The story is simple, in a way. A somewhat anonymous young man, Smokey Barnable, marries into the large and complicated Drinkwater family and goes to live in their many-roomed maze of a house. The narration meanders backward and forward in time to eventually include six generations of the Bramble, Drinkwater, Cloud, Mouse, Hawksquill, and Barnable families. (Notice anything unusual about the names?)

Then, again, the story is rather complicated, because "the further in you go, the bigger it gets." All these family members are part of a Tale being orchestrated by the fairy kingdom. Some believe this more than others (and some don't believe at all), but none know how the Tale will end.

It is impossible for me to convey the essence of this story, because it has always seemed to me that the book itself must be magic. It is subtly filled with vague hints, half-understood clues, half-seen glimpses, too-convenient coincidences. If fairies were real, this would be the way they operate.

The writing is magical as well. The text reads as if it were written in the 19th century rather than in the 1980s. It is formal, rather dense, beautiful. The ending is perfect.

I have never discussed this novel with anyone, but I have the feeling that it is one of those that readers would really love or really hate, and maybe not even finish. I think it would depend on the ability of the reader to completely suspend disbelief. I am a champion at that. While I read this book and for some time after, it is true for me. I dream about it, even.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blessed McGill by Edwin Shrake

I've been searching for good books about Texas lately for a series of book reviews I am doing for TexasLive magazine. This one was mentioned on some web sites as a "masterpiece of Texas literature," and one site even compared Shrake to McMurtry and McCarthy. (I don't believe that McMurtry is in the same league as McCarthy, but anyway.) Unfortunately, I do not share those favorable opinions, and I don't think I can even recommend this book. Here's why.

Blessed McGill recounts the episodic adventures of the title character during the Reconstruction era in Texas, mostly concerning his dealings with various Indian bands. It is structured as a reminiscence, as McGill awaits a presumed death at the hands of his worst enemy, who was once his best friend.

The set-up is intriguing , the many historical details about Austin and the Texas Hill Country are interesting, the conclusion (when a twist of circumstance leads to McGill being the first North American to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church) is clever. But Shrake's failure to write effectively in the tone he has elected to use destroys everything.

This is supposed to be a "dark comedy," which means that terrible events happen, but they are recounted in such a way as to be ironic and humorous. Joseph Heller did it in Catch 22, and it worked. Kurt Vonnegut did it in Slaughterhouse 5, and it worked. Shrake has tried to do this, and it doesn't work. He is ironic, but not humorous, so that his vivid descriptions of brutalities come across as distasteful and horribly discordant with the tone.

In addition, I believe that Shrake owed more than a nod to Thomas Berger, who published Little Big Man four years before this novel was published. In Berger's account of Indian life, he accomplishes what Shrake tried for, also using the same general structure and the black comedy tone. And his book is very, very funny.

I recommend that readers pass this by. If someone out there has a differing opinion, I would be glad to hear it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry

Before Lonesome Dove and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, before about 30 other novels, before Brokeback Mountain and more than 40 other screenplays, Larry McMurtry wrote Horseman, Pass By , his first novel. And it is one of his best.

The time is 1954; the place is a ranch outside the fictional town of Thalia, near Wichita Falls (a stand-in for Archer City, McMurtry's home town); the narrator is Lonnie, a 17-year-old trying to find the man he will turn out to be. Three people loom large in his life: Homer Brannon, his 80-year-old grandfather, an old-time, hard-working rancher dedicated to his land and his cattle; Halmea, the black cook, both a mother-figure for him and an object of his teenage lust; and Hud, the grandfather's stepson, a first-class SOB (no other way to say it) dedicated to money and chasing women.

Many very bad things happen in this novel, beginning with the dreaded threat of hoof-and-mouth disease, which could mean that all the carefully-bred cattle will have to be slaughtered, essentially bringing an end to the grandfather's way of life. And that's not the worst.

What saves this book from being just an incredibly sad tale of the demise of the Old West is the lack of romanticism in character portrayal, the authenticity of the dialogue for the time and place, and the lyrical poetry of the language in describing the landscape. It all feels so real that one can only assume that, while the story details are probably fictitious, the yearnings of the young Lonnie must have been those of the young McMurtry.

Just a note about the movie Hud, which was made from this book--it starred Paul Newman as Hud Bannon, and he was so magnetic, so sexy (for those older readers who remember him), that the focus of the movie necessarily shifted to his story, his motivations. Don't expect that from this book. Also, in the movie the character Halmea was switched to a white character, Alma. They didn't want to tackle the race-relation angle in the 1960s, I suppose.

Highly recommended, particularly for Texans.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

For 40 years I have avoided reading anything by Philip Roth, because Portnoy's Complaint annoyed me so. That book was so whiny, so non-funny in its humor, so obviously designed to shock, and, finally, just so Jewish. It was like Woody Allen on paper.

But this one is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I try to read all of those, so I read it, although with some misgivings. As it turns out, it is not whiny; it does not even try to be funny; its shock lies in the tragedy of events rather than in graphic sexual descriptions; it is still pretty Jewish, but not in a stereotypical, only-Jews-can-understand-this way. It is superbly written, switching backward and forward through time with ease and clarity to place climactic events at just the right places. Roth is a wizard with words. The book lends itself to a variety of interpretations, and I have been thinking about it all morning. That, in itself, is the mark of a good book--you think about it afterward.

On one level, this is just the incredibly sad story of "Swede" Levov, a third-generation Jewish boy who seems to be living the American dream. He is a three-sport athletic wonder in high school and a Marine in World War II, marries an Irish-Catholic beauty who was Miss New Jersey, becomes rich from the glove factory his father started, moves to the New Jersey countryside, and has an intelligent and loving daughter. And then things fall apart. The adored daughter becomes a fanatical teenager who protests the war in Viet Nam with a savage act of terrorism. The daughter "transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral--into the indigenous American berserk."

On another level, as I interpret it, this is an allegory for the death of the American promise. For a good while, the dream held together. Hard work, dedication to "doing the right thing," and a general desire for assimilation seemed to work. And then, it just didn't work anymore--race riots, outsourcing of manufacturing, war protests, a general discontent. The center could not hold.

One reason I keep thinking about this book is that once again, it seems to me, America is falling apart, this time along religious and economic fault lines.

American Pastoral is not an easy book to read, does not tie up all the loose plot ends, and is certainly not "happily ever after." Still, it is an essential book, worthy of its Pulitzer Prize and its inclusion on the Times Top 100.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

When I reviewed the first of this series, A Game of Thrones, I said that I might read the second, but if it was the same-old I would not read the rest. So this is the second. I will not read the rest. This was not even as good as the first one.

In the first of the series, the king is killed and the kingdom is thrown into chaos. In this one, six different claimants for the throne scheme and make war with each other, culminating in a grand battle which leaves only three claimants. In the meantime, dragons have hatched, which allows magic to creep back into the land.

This book has the problems of the first, multiplied. It is even longer-winded (969 pages). It is padded with detailed descriptions of appearance and wearing apparel, even in climactic scenes. (Every time Queen Cersei shows up, her "yellow" hair is described as "tumbling to her bare shoulders in thick curls." I'm picturing Farrah Fawcett here.) It includes the menu of almost every meal. (While the final battle is going on, the women dine on broth; a salad of apples, nuts, and raisins; crabclaw pies; mutton roasted with leeks and carrots, served in trenchers of hollowed bread; and goatcheese served with baked apples flavored with cinnamon. Yumm!) It throws in a graphic gratuitous sex scene from time to time, plus multiple mentions of rape. (We are, however, spared detailed descriptions of the rapes.) One improvement--most of the grammatical problems present in the first have been cleaned up.

Again, Martin uses the soap-opera style of narration: short scenes, one after another, from the viewpoints of eleven different characters. Thus the book starts with a 7-page scene in the life of 10-year-old Arya, followed by a 15-page scene about 13-year-old Sansa, a 17-page scene about the dwarf Tyrion, and an 11-page scene about 8-year-old Bran, before returning to continue Arya's story. OK, I get it that this lets the reader know that all the action is happening simultaneously, but it totally destroys any semblance of dramatic pacing.

And what's up with all these children who act like adults? Three of the claimants to the throne are under 16, and one of them is leading an army. The 10-year-old slits a guard's throat. Really?

Of course, Martin leaves all manner of enticing loose ends to encourage readers to buy the next book. I plan to save my money and read a plot synopsis on the internet.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

Sometimes a story of real life can be stranger, more dramatic, more glorious, and more tragic than fiction. That is the case with this fully researched history of Quanah Parker and the rise and fall of the Comanches, the most powerful Indian tribe in American history.

Gwynne recounts the history of the Comanches, who became the most proficient, ever,in fighting from horseback. Their tactics and capabilities allowed them to repulse the Spanish, the French, the Mexicans, the Texans, and the U.S. cavalry, until superior weapons and the almost total obliteration of their chief source of food, the buffalo, finally conquered them.

Many historians would have been content to document the grand sweep of events, but Gwynne does more. This is also the dramatic saga of Cynthia Ann Parker, the white child who was kidnapped by Comanches, and of her half-blood son Quanah Parker, the last and greatest Comanche chief. It is also a narrative of the extraordinary life of Ranald S. Mackenzie, the cavalry leader who destroyed the Comanches but later befriended Quanah on the reservation. Although he was America's greatest Indian fighter, he never attracted the fame of Custer, and his life ended in madness.

Empire of the Summer Moon is, most of all, a history with emotion. And that emotion is sadness. Sadness for the life of Cynthia Ann, who was forcibly ripped from her known world twice, once by the Comanches and once by her "rescuers," who returned her to be an unwilling prisoner of her white relatives. Gwynne says, "But it was painfully apparent from the earliest days that the real tragedy in her life was not her first captivity but her second." Sadness for the inevitable tragedies that occur when a primitive, free-roaming people clash with hardy, determined families attempting to make new lives for themselves. (I cried while reading a history, for goodness sake!)

What makes this book riveting is that Gwynne is not a historian who writes books, but rather a writer who is also a first-class historian. The history is thorough, impartial, and extensively documented through primary sources. The writing is both lyrical and brutal and reads like a Hollywood-worthy epic. Highly recommended for both history buffs and fiction readers.

Friday, December 2, 2011

11/22/63 by Stephen King

I'm a sucker for Stephen King. When he is good, he is very, very good. He can tap into universal fears and convince readers that they are right to fear clowns, houses that appear "wrong" somehow, malevolent cats and dogs, and even inanimate machines (like cars) that seem to bear grudges. He can develop characters who come alive better than any living author I have read. He believes in an absolute evil that all must confront, both in themselves and outside themselves. (This last attribute--a belief in good and evil--is not an acceptable concept to some, I know.) When he is bad, he is not horrid, just hokey and formulaic. This novel leans toward the good side, but it is not among his very best.

The subject here is not things that go bump in the night, but time travel. Jake Epping is a 35-year-old, recently-divorced English teacher. When his friend Al shows him a portal to a past time, 1958, he decides to give it a try, mainly to see if he can save a particular family, that of a GED student who has written an essay about the slaying of his mother and siblings.

The hitch with this time travel is that when the traveler returns to his present and then goes through the portal again, back to 1958, time starts over, so that anything previously changed has reverted. When Al persuades Jake to go back in time to try to save President Kennedy from being killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, Jake first has to go back to re-save the student's family, before traveling to Texas to wait for 1963.

The remainder of the book concerns Jake's time in a small town in Texas, where he falls in love; and his shadowing of Oswald, to be sure that he alone was responsible for Kennedy's death. And, then of course, the race to stop the assassination.

This, then, is not so much an alternate history as it is an account of how Jake changes history. The conclusion is a bit surprising, and somewhat anticlimactic.

Good Things: The story is absorbing and mostly well paced. The portrayal of Oswald and his wife Marina is convincing. The plot is logical, once the basic suspension of disbelief about time travel has been overcome.

Bad Things: The level of character development is limited to only a few of the participants, thus failing to create total involvement. The novel is too long (831 pages)and should have been trimmed somewhat of details, particularly of the mechanics of the shadowing of Oswald.

The Main Bad Thing for me, though, would not be noted by a non-Texan. King got the geography and culture of Texas wrong! With his (obviously extensive) research about Oswald and Dallas, he should have included a look at the map of Texas. Three times he mentions the odor of oil and natural gas in Dallas, which supposedly comes from the Permian Basin and Midland/Odessa. That's 300+ miles. Really? His fictional small Texas town is near Killeen, which is characterized as being in South Central Texas. Really? A band of amateur teenage musicians from San Antonio comes to play at a party in this town. That's 100+ miles. Really? At the same party, with students in attendance, the high school faculty members are getting loaded on beer. Did King not know about the Bible Belt? Really? Businessmen in Dallas are portrayed as wearing holsters and handguns to work. (Open-carry has been prohibited in Texas since Reconstruction.) Really? I know this is picky, but if you have the money and resources of Stephen King, you should hire the people to do the research, even if you don't want to bother yourself.

I would give this novel a B+ in comparison with the rest of King's works. It is still a late-into-the-night, absorbing read.