Note on BUBBA’S BOOK CLUB
Previous visitors to this space will notice the deletion of “‘N’ MUSIC” from BUBBA’S BOOK CLUB
(I particularly hated to say goodbye to that ‘N’).
The reason for that is simple: I wasn’t finding enough new music worth writing about, and didn’t want to start turning it into a retrospective “alltime greats” section (though I might launch that someday, along with a similar reading list).
Even with the book reviews, as I had feared from the outset, it’s starting to affect the way I read, and I’m not sure I like that. As I’m reading a book I enjoy, I start thinking, “How will I write about this?” So far that thought has remained interesting and challenging as a complement to the reading, but I can see how it might become… too ponderous.
People get paid for reviewing books for a reason — it’s work! (At least I only feel compelled to review books I have enjoyed.)
One of my recent reads was Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his monthly columns for a San Francisco periodical (I forget the name right now, but it was connected with the fine people at McSweeney’s, who turn out some wonderful books). The subject of the columns was books and reading — other people’s books that Hornby was reading each month.
That subject had a certain resonance for me, of course, in this very context, and the writing is very enjoyable — much looser, wittier, and more amusing than his novels, perhaps because he was writing journalism, and felt that way.
Nick Hornby notes that it is still possible for one person to see all the great movies, and hear all the best music, but almost impossible to read all the great books in one lifetime. My brother Danny once told me that 150 years ago it was possible for one person to have read every book in print — not anymore.
Hornby writes that these days it would take fifteen years just to read the titles of every book ever printed.
Here is a quote from The Polysyllabic Spree that echoes my feelings about books.
Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. “The Magic Flute” v. Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. “The Last Supper” v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don’t know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. You might get the occasional exception — Blonde on Blonde might mash up The Old Curiosity Shop, say, and I wouldn’t give much for Pale Fire’s chances against Citizen Kane. And every now and then you’d get a shock, because that happens in sport, so Back to the Future III might land a lucky punch on Rabbit, Run; but I’m still backing literature twenty-nine times out of thirty.
That is good, and I applaud his choice of titles, too (I agree with him much more about books than I do about music).
So anyway, for now I’m going to try to keep up with the book reviews, see how it feels.
Until I Find You — John Irving
John Irving still writes for a time when a certain class of readers had the leisure time to read an 800-page novel, and John Irving still writes for a time when the novel was the only private form of popular entertainment. At best, the novel could deliver a whole new world of ideas and experiences to a reader whose own world was, compared to ours, narrow and isolated. To an English villager, or an American farmer’s wife, the novel was a window to the larger world — a panorama of drama, history, ideas, and vicarious experience bringing light to what a historian once evocatively described as “a world lit only by fire.”
Naturally, even then there were plenty of readers who could be entertained by shallow diversions, the kind of novels that haven’t endured, but as a general thing, readers expected not only to be diverted, but to be educated, uplifted, and carried away, transported to places they might never visit, whether on the map or in the course of their lives — they expected to live those novels.
To consider for a moment all the diversions that were not available in “the olden days” is to imagine how magical music was in the time of Mozart and Bach, how powerful theatre was in the time of Shakespeare and Molière, and how important the novel was in the time of George Eliot, Dickens, Balzac, Zola, Twain, and Thomas Hardy.
That is the tradition in which John Irving writes — for a world lit only by fire.
His sprawling, painstakingly detailed stories are crafted in the classic tradition as well; with well-honed tools of symbolism and metaphor in delightfully skewed characters and settings, but rendered in a language and sensibility entirely of our time. Over the years, I have read and loved all of John Irving’s novels, with a special affection for The World According to Garp, A Prayer For Owen Meany, and The Cider House Rules.
The experience of reading Until I Find You moves me to superlatives, to gush with enthusiasm — I just can’t manage a typical reviewer’s dispassionate praise. I think it’s brilliant, wonderful, a masterpiece.
The characters and settings are unforgettable, and so is the experience of sharing — living — their lives. Until I Find You lit a big fire in my world.
The Way the Crow Flies — Ann-Marie MacDonald
Charles Dickens once described his writing method like this:
“Make them laugh; make them cry; make them wait.”
Ann-Marie MacDonald is a master of that method.
A couple of years ago, my bandmate Geddy gave me her first novel, Fall On Your Knees, and I remember describing it to him later as “harrowing.” I thought the novel was beautifully written, achingly poignant, and so compelling it was hard to stop reading, but I still felt as though the author had been so cruel — making me care about her characters, then doing terrible things to them.
True enough, but that is tragedy (it’s not a tragedy if you don’t care), and — alas — it is life. Sometimes a sad story makes you feel better, makes you feel less alone, but other times, as in Fall On Your Knees, and another “harrowing” book I read around the same time, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the story may be almost unbearably sad, but you don’t feel so bad because it’s been so beautifully told.
And perhaps that’s the thing — we know that life is ultimately tragic, no way around it, and the only magic available to us, the only way to transcend that tragedy, is to make it funny, or to make it beautiful.
Comes down to it, if there really does happen to be a Supreme Deity or two out there, they may well have taught Charles Dickens his lines. “Make them laugh; make them cry; make them wait.”
Though not necessarily in that order…
The Way the Crow Flies is another BIG book, over 800 pages, but for all that, it’s a tightly constructed, compelling read, rich with history both real and imagined, carefully researched and artfully recounted.
So there I was, on a rainy September day in Quebec, with the first sprays of orange, yellow, and red in the trees outside, lying under a quilt on the sofa in front of the fire — reading.
From the very beginning, the story introduces two contrasting themes: a dark foreboding, like cellos, as you are made to care about someone you’re afraid terrible things are going to happen to, but in the foreground of the story bounces a solo saxophone, a lilting air that smiles with summer sunshine, innocent childhood, and the pop-culture static of growing up in the ’50s and ’60s — the TV commercials, the pop songs, the cereal boxes, the Cold War.
Ann-Marie MacDonald makes you laugh — at the gawky sensitivity of children, their unknowing awareness. She makes you wait — to find out who it is she’s going to do the next terrible thing to.
Then she makes you cry (for about 100 pages, in my case).
When I was reading Fall On Your Knees, my wife, Carrie, asked me what it was about. When I told her, she made a face,
“Why would you want to read a story like that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Because it’s beautiful?”
Maybe that experience is not for everybody, but that’s the only way I could describe that novel, or The Way the Crow Flies.
Even if a sad story doesn’t always make you feel good, when it’s written this well, it makes you feel so deeply. And that’s a prize too.
No Country For Old Men — Cormac McCarthy
Many years ago, a friend of mine, Leo, wanted me to read Cormac McCarthy so badly that when he was unable to find any of his books, he photocopied his own copy of A Child of God to give to me.
The word for my response to reading that book might be “stunned,” or “galvanized,” or “bemused.” Certainly changed.
I went on to read all of McCarthy’s novels, and be haunted — again, the only word — by them all. From the mythic spell of Blood Meridian to the gritty sinew of The Border Trilogy, I rank Cormac McCarthy on the very Olympus of modern writers.
With No Country For Old Men, McCarthy has written his most ambitious myth yet, and like many myths, it also has a lot to say about the world around us now. In the familiar McCarthy landscape of West Texas, along the Mexican border, the fate of two men and those around them are affected by a drug deal gone fatally bad. The aging Sheriff Bell reflects on the changes he has known through his life and career, while a young man, Llewelyn Moss, finds himself swept into a vortex of evil and violence.
McCarthy’s writing has become ever more compressed and distilled, yet resonant with spirit, sensation, and wisdom.
Scattered Suns (The Saga of Seven Suns, Book 4) — Kevin J. Anderson
Full Disclosure: Kevin J. Anderson has been a friend of mine for about 20 years, and I have recently written an introduction for a forthcoming book of his stories. A few years back we even collaborated on a short story called “Drumbeats” — though Kevin did all the work; I just supplied some African background and French dialogue.
Having stated that, I truly believe Kevin is a great writer.
In my teens and early ’20s, I read all of the classics of sci-fi and fantasy — Verne, Wells, Orwell, Bradbury, Wyndham, Heinlein, Azimov, Herbert, Delany, Leiber, Leguin, Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, C.S. Lewis, and many more. As my reading tastes broadened, I gradually left the genre behind — along with mysteries, historical romances, and spy thrillers — for more “serious” pursuits.
“Serious” because I began to demand a feeling of “reward” for the time I spent on fiction and non-fiction, and was no longer satisfied with merely killing time with a diverting story. “Pursuits” because I was pursuing knowledge, experience, and education.
Kevin Anderson sent me his first published novel, Resurrection Inc., in the late ’80s, and I was extremely impressed — it was so original, so imaginative, so profound, and at the same time so true to life.
Verisimilitude: “having the appearance of truth.” Kevin’s characters always seem to do what those characters would do, if things like that happened to them.
More praise for Kevin will be found in my introduction to his book of stories, and also in my own Roadshow, when both are published (early next year, I hope), but for now, I’ll just say that Kevin J. Anderson is the only sci-fi or fantasy writer I read these days. However, because he is so prolific, that still means two or three new books every year.
I think The Saga of Seven Suns is among his finest work, and I have read each succeeding book in the series with the same rapt enjoyment.