Saturday, April 26, 2008

Big Book Roundup

I've been reading a lot, but not posting. Here's my quick recap of my recent reading.

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
This was recently made into a movie, and it was directed by the Coen brothers. It was nominated for a number of awards and even won a few. I had no interest in seeing this film based on its description, but when we inherited the book I decided there was no reason not to read it--even if its subject didn't interest me at all.

This is the area in which literary novel and genre novel get confused with one another. This is a literary novel, but it relies on the conventions of crime novels, detective novels, and thrillers. The reason it's a literary novel is that while it makes use of those conventions it doesn't lapse into a lazy tracing of the stereotypes that most commonly result from that. And it's so well written--the language is careful, deliberate, and sharp as a scalpel--that even if it were merely genre work it would be worth reading. Both the protagonist and the antagonist defy expectation, and the story develops in such a way as to assure the reader that he doesn't know what's coming. A very enjoyable book, and it's a fast read, too. I may have to see the movie now.

Second Heaven by Judith Guest
I have to admit it: I love Judith Guest. As I was finishing my MFA thesis she visited Mankato, and I was able to schedule a manuscript conference with her. I didn't want to burden her with my whole screenplay, so I just submitted my first fifteen pages. When we met, she was kind and gracious--but she didn't think the story worked. We talked about it for a half hour anyway, and she was intrigued enough by some of the elements to offer to read the whole script. I mailed her the whole monster, and then about a month later we met in a coffee shop in Edina to talk it over.

She still had concerns about the story, but she really liked the characters I was working with. Since the characters were the core of the story I was really encouraged. We talked for about an hour and a half that day. Judy (that's how she signed her emails) took a place in my mind that was part aunt, part grandmother, and part sister. I really value the time she took for me.

As for this book--when I saw it in an antique store for a dollar I had to pick it up. Her characters and the novel's premise weren't really my thing, but I feel like I'm supporting her work in some small way by reading this. Like the McCarthy book, despite a disconnect between my usual interests and Guest's material, this is an enjoyable read. The psychological depth and the reality of the characters propelled me through the story. Now I need to read Ordinary People (I've seen parts of the Oscar-winning film adaptation, but haven't read the book yet).

Conan the Marauder by John Maddox Roberts
This is exactly what it should be. There's no reason to open a Conan novel expecting literary genius. What one should expect is a series of exciting conflicts during which Mr. Of Cimmeria will demonstrate his awesomeness. There are feats of strength in this novel. There are also feats of cunning, of skill, and of a general derring-do. Conan of Cimmeria always wins. I know that. You know that. But it's fun to read anyway.

In this case, Conan begins the story by being captured and forced into a Roman-gladiator-type slavery. But because Conan is awesome, he is soon a general in the army of the people who enslaved him.

Bottom line? Conan of Cimmeria is awesome. And this book, while not a great work of art, is fun to read.

The Young and Violent by Vin Packer
I found this in a box of old books at my mom's house, and since I'm incapable of ignoring a book in my possession, I hung onto it and figured I'd read it at some point. "Some point" came a week or so ago, and I finally consumed this hunk of cliche.

Here's the setup: gangs, New York City, drugs, 1950s. You have a picture in your head now, right? It's mostly general, and probably involves a lot of stereotypes, right? That's this book.

Based on the cover art and the contents of the story I had imagined Vin Packer to be some misogynist troll, a dense man with a heavy brow ridge who yells for his wife to get him a beer while he watches professional wrestling and NASCAR. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that "Vin Packer" is the pen-name of Marijane Meaker--a woman. Not only is she a woman, she's a lesbian. She is a woman and she loves women, but the female characters in this story are weak, simple, and amoral. Mostly they're furniture with dialogue and orifices for men to exploit.

If you're inclined to read this story, I'd advise you not to. Save time and hit yourself on the head with a cinder block instead. Same effect.

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