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February 2007

Books Acquired

Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield • Daredevil 2, by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev • Daredevil 3, by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev • Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell • The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, by Roald Dahl • The Book Theif, by Markus Zusak

Books Read

Brainiac, by Ken Jennings • Journal of a Novel, by John Steinbeck • Justice 1, by Alex Ross, Jim Kreuger, and Doug Braithwaite • Love is a Mix Tape, by Rob Sheffield • God Save the Child, by Robert Parker

* * *

You know, though I am addicted to the Internet and literally could not live without it at this point, in a lot of ways, I think we were better off without all the information. I remember, back in 1995, I was heavily into an Orson Scott Card jag and loving every second of it. I couldn’t get enough: I’d weirdly fallen in love with Xenocide (the third book in the Ender series, and still my favorite), I’d made my careful way through the entire Alvin series, which just seemed to pick up steam as it went along, loved the first three books of the Homecoming series and wanted to murder myself during the final two. Back then, the only thing to be annoyed with him for (besides, of course, those last two fucking Homecoming books) was the fact that Lovelock continued to be an open-ended book with no sequel in sight. Ah, the bliss of naïveté.

It was during this Card excitement, I delved into his first horror novel, Lost Boys, which featured a strangely downbeat ending and a fun, nasty side to Card I’d never read before. It also gave a little insight into the Mormon world, which fascinated me; organized religion has always kind of weirded me out, and here it was, just presented as a normal part of a normal book. The fact that the characters seemed real made Mormonism something that just happened, and it wasn’t scary or strange or batshit crazy.

Then the Internet hits and guess what? Orson Scott Card himself is scary and strange and batshit crazy. And on the heels of that, intensely homophobic, which is all sorts of awesome. Because Card is sort of the unofficial Mormon diplomat to the literary world, he painted the whole Mormon ideology as something angry and closed-minded and borderline hateful.

Which is why Ken Jennings is my new hero. You all know Ken Jennings, right? Won five billion straight games on Jeopardy! before being trounced on the H&R Block question by smiling Romulan Nancy Zerg? Yeah, that Ken Jennings. He’s awesome and here’s why:

You think his book is going to be all about how he rocked Jeopardy! and how smart he is and how things work out great if you’re totally a Mormon. But the book is actually about the paradoxical importance of trivia, and how it came to be that way. You get a little history (about both Ken and trivia in general), you get familiar with some of the odder corners of the trivia world (including the story of one town that pretty much shuts down for four days for their annual trivia contest), and you get trivia questions and answers in every chapter. It doesn’t hurt that Jennings is a natural storyteller, and that no matter whether he’s talking about the origins of trivia or the quiz show scandals of the 1950s, he always comes across like an everyman, reporting back with wide-eyed wonder.

As such, the Mormon thing becomes kind of a non-issue. He mentions it in passing, a couple of times discussing how much of his winnings he’s going to tithe to his church. Near the end of the book, he says that one of the things he’s most proud of is being openly religious on national TV, but not coming across as crazy or judgmental. I really liked that.

Of course, still living with the sour taste of Orson Scott Card in my mouth, I scoured the book for every mention of things homosexual, just to try to catch Ken Jennings out. As it turns out, the gay stuff is only mentioned once or twice, and never in a negative. (Though there is a certain bemusement when he discusses the Alex Trebek/Ken Jennings slash stories he accidentally stumbled across online … but really, is there any other way to discuss that?) Oh, and for the record, Stephen King is also mentioned once, and not in a negative. Because that’s what I look for in my nonfiction: faggotry and Stephen King. This is how I roll.

Last year, sometime in February, I picked up East of Eden and got sucked in. That sucker took me two months to read, but I loved every second of it. (You’ll notice I haven’t picked up any huge books yet this year. I’ve only read a fifth of the books I need to read this year, and I’m nervous that if I get bogged down in something voluminous, I won’t be able to catch up. Plus, how lame would it be to have a blank space under Books Read? I’m a writer. Blank space is the enemy.) Anyway, when I discovered Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters last year, I got psycho obsessed with reading it. A book! Talking about one of my favorite books! By the author!? As he wrote it!? How can you go wrong!?

Well … wrong is sort of a strong word. Because I liked Journal of a Novel a great deal and I’m happy I read it, I’m not going to say anything was particularly awful about it. But you know how when you start a Steinbeck book, particularly a long one, you have to sort of fight through the first chapter to get to the good stuff? Well, imagine that whole “first chapter” vibe being sprinkled throughout the book. You’re going along for awhile, reveling in the things that Steinbeck’s reveling in … and then he goes off on these tangents that become harder and harder to care about. (Yes, we know you’re political. Yes, that’s interesting, John. Oh my God, deal with your whole Douglas MacArthur thing and tell us more about the book.)

I suppose it’s kind of unfair. I don’t even know if Steinbeck ever meant for his letters to be published. And I will say that near the end, the tenor of the thing picks up speed and, not incidentally, resonance. Once he settles on the title East of Eden (and figures out his main theme with the word “timshel”), the book becomes fascinating, especially if you’re a writer. I’m not quite sure who else – besides Steinbeck scholars – to recommend this to.

You know what I will recommend to everyone? Love is a Mix Tape. Oh, man. Imagine the aesthetic of Nick Hornby – especially that of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and Songbook – in the voice of a grandly romantic American, and you have one of the most beautiful, tragic books ever written about Generation X. Essentially, it is the story about the author, Rob Sheffield, and his doomed relationship with the love of his life, Renee. Sheffield plunges into his tale of life with Renee absolutely convinced that you will love her, too, and the cool thing is that he’s right. It’s a little weird how Sheffield himself sort of fades into the background of the early chapters: Renee is too much of a force for him to contend with, it seems, but she never comes off as overbearing or shrewish.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Rob and Renee are witness to the mainstreaming of grunge; you expect them to be all bitter and angry about it, but they loved it. That’s the most interesting thing about Love is a Mix Tape (which starts off each chapter with a track listing of an actual mix tape made either by or for Sheffield): just when you think you absolutely know these characters (these people, actually; I constantly had to remind myself that I was reading nonfiction), they surprise you. Just when I thought the book was getting unnecessarily maudlin near the end, out comes a mix tape with Hanson’s “Mmmbop” on it, and the tragedy clears. I loved this book.

To round out February, I decided to re-read one of Robert Parker’s early Spenser novels, God Save the Child. Oh, I didn’t know it was a re-read at first. Or at all, until I got to the end. While Parker is one of my favorite writers, I have a long-standing complaint against him: his titles are too fucking generic. (Says the man who wrote Find the River and Carry That Weight.) With obvious exceptions like Looking for Rachel Wallace and Early Autumn, all of Parker’s books are titled with half-quotes from, like Shakespeare and Billie Holliday and stuff, and it’s rare when I can look at my Parker shelf and tell you what I’ve read. I was so happy when Hugger Mugger came out. At least it rhymed.

I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that I didn’t know until the final fistfight whether I’d read the book before. I kept looking up from my chair thinking, Wait, did I read about him meeting Susan for the first time before? Or, Wait, am I remembering this gay dude from this book or a different book? It was still entertaining. I’ve yet to read a dull Spenser novel, which is more than I can say about Parker’s non-series stuff (especially All Our Yesterdays and, Jesus, Love and Glory.) As a gay dude, I’m constantly surprised at how homo-friendly Parker’s Spenser books are. Here you have this tough, streetwise ex-boxer, and you totally expect him to be all thickheaded and homophobic … and yet, he’s buddies with gay guys, spends time in gay bars, and doesn’t make a judgment when he finds out some guys he’s investigating are having a romantic relationship. Given that God Save the Child was written in 1973, that’s amazingly forward thinking.

Besides, I think Parker was too busy having orgasms over food to worry too much about the gays. Seriously, whenever Spenser or Susan prepare a meal, the book has to stop and ogle over all the food: how it’s prepared, what wines go with it, how it’s eaten. It borders on fetishistic. Also, though I remember him getting out of this habit later, Parker tends to rely on the Comma Method of description, e.g.: “Outside of the house was some grass, some puddles, a rake, a shovel, a wheelbarrow, a dog, a kiddie pool, some bricks, a tree, another tree, a different tree, more bricks, a hammer, some bushes, another bush, some more bushes, birch trees, another rake, leaves, fallen shingles, a trash barrel, more bushes, and a piece of a gutter.” Parker? We get it.

Also … okay, this should not be bugging me this much, but there’s one part where Spenser wakes up at ten AM, takes a long shower, dresses, makes coffee, then drives forty-five miles to Smithfield. When he looks at his watch: twelve past ten. You cannot change the laws of physics, Mr. Parker!

All that said, I think it might be time for me to read (or re-read) some more early Parker. I’d forgotten how witty and outright funny the books can be, and how fun his dialogue is. I’m also kind of amazed at how often Parker lets Spenser do stuff wrong – he’s not a superhero and he’s not above reproach, at least not at this stage. That makes me happy, too. Also, did I mention the fistfight? It’s an awesome fistfight.

Next month: The Hunting of the Snark, and probably some other stuff. I’ve lived three months without a Stephen King re-read. That’s probably my limit.