Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On The Shelf: A New King

I'm something of a ceaseless reader. Stephen King once wrote (in On Writing I think, though I could easily be wrong) that he never goes anywhere without a book, since you never know when you'll need a mental escape hatch. Those are the words of a kindred soul. I cart books and magazine articles with me everywhere I go which is sometimes less than wise. Walking and reading is, typically, not a good thing. Still, I do it all the time. That being the case I thought I'd start letting you folks know what tomes I've got my nose buried in. I love having someone recommend a good book just as much as I enjoy reading someone's evisceration of a bad one. Here I'll do both, depending on the book and my enjoyment of it.

The Passage is one of those annoyingly-oversold summer books. They're omnipresent on the display shelves of bookstores and pop up on all the mainstream "What To Read For Summer" lists as well as in the hands of multiple Subway and Bus riders. If an album/book/crocheted-panorama/whathaveyou is being enjoyed by everyone and talked about on Good Morning America, I'm sometimes perversely compelled to skip over it in search of rarer gems* (this is why, despite its cultural ubiquity, I have not touched Stieg Larsen's Millenium Trilogy). I freely admit that this is weird behavior, but it's not (entirely) snobby behavior. It's not that I'm "too good" for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo or anything. I'm just wired, seemingly from birth, to look for the underdogs. The snobby part, self-admittedly, comes from the fact that some of the things which the larger culture embraces completely tend to be - to me - kind of....average at best.

That said, I'm not immune to the larger conversation happening around me, or to Big Popular Mainstream Entertainment**. I've devoured Stephen King's books since I first discovered his book IT at age 12, read the opening scenes in which poor Georgie meets the scariest clown of all time and then promptly hid its nightmare-inducing cover under a stack of other, more benign books as though they'd help to drain away some of the pure terror that it induced in me through literary osmosis.

I bring King up because Cronin's book gets a glowing (sneaky pun!) back cover blurb from the Master of Horror. That's not what attracted me to the book, but I did find it interesting since the novel is so far reading like early King - specifically The Stand (there's even a seemingly-'special' kid, one of King's most consistently recycled elements). This is very much a compliment. I'm impressed by Cronin's skill with his characters, by the way in which he's unspooling this addictive narrative and by the economy and force of his prose. The sentence "Now I know why the soldiers are here," which appears some twenty-something pages into the book, perfectly sums up the sure-handed approach that Cronin takes with this potentially uber-pulpy material. Cronin doesn't fall prey to typical genre traps; his characters are uniformly well-rounded and struck through with shades of gray, his plot turns are deftly executed, and his writing is spare and evocative. The basic spine of this book's story could easily be a terrible Sci-Fi channel miniseries. There's little that's truly original thus far in the macro details of the story (Mysterious virus? Check. Shady Military involvement? Check. Vampires? Double-check, since every bit of entertainment that's produced is now contractually obligated to feature at least one vampire) but the skill of the storyteller elevates it far above that.

I'm only 100 or so pages into this one, but I'd already recommend it. It's compulsively-readable, literary without being difficult/boring, pulpy and appealing without being dumb/obvious. I'm as vamped-out as anyone (keep in mind: I've seen ALL the Twilight movies, thanks to The Lovely Wife) and if folks were prohibited from releasing anything undead-related for a year or two I think the culture as a whole would feel a lot less dull/repetitive, but if you're going to read one vampire-related novel this year, make it The Passage.***

What about you? What're you reading this summer?

*There's a strange, indefinable difference between entertainment that's truly been embraced on a massive level by the public at large (see: The DaVinci Code) and entertainment that's been wholly-embraced by the critical/media establishment, which is NOT the larger viewing public (see: Mad Men). I'm curiously compelled to avoid the former, not so much the latter. The reasoning behind this is as murky and elusive as you'd expect.

**Film especially. I'm always up for a good blockbuster. Make of this what you will.

***For the love of all that is good and holy, don't make that book Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.


  1. Aside from school books (existentialism and dystopian fiction, mostly), I'm trying to work my way through the rest of David Foster Wallace's canon (minus Jest). I'm reading Brief Interviews right now, and the chapter on depression is heartbreaking, especially knowing the future.
    Once I finish all of this, though, I'm going to get into more current reading, and will definitely give The Passage a look-see. What I've read is pretty positive, and it'll be nice to read a (more) straightforward book again.

  2. I am a Strange Loop by Hofstadter, D.

    Re-reading it, natch.

  3. I'm glad I'm not the only one who hasn't read the Stieg Larsen books for a reason like that. I just finished up Watership Down and I'm about to start King's Dark Tower series. I've heard a lot of good things about that one, so I'm kind of excited.

    holyvenom, do you have any recommendations for a David Foster Wallace starting place? I've been meaning to read something of his for a while now.

  4. I'm not James (holyvenom) but I'd recommend starting with "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." Its a good intro to his style and it's very entertaining. Then, "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men."

    James, what do you think?

  5. Oh, and re The Dark Tower:

    Some of King's other books are 'connected' to the Tower story in different ways. If you really want to get the most out of the books, I'd recommend spacing the Tower story out and reading some of his other novels in between. It'll enrich the experience. In at least one instance (arguably 2 or 3) you kind of NEED to read these "satellite" books. Here's my suggested reading order:

    1. The Gunslinger
    2. Salem's Lot
    3. The Drawing of the Three
    4. Ideally, The Stand, but since The Stand is hella-long, you could also substitute in The Eyes of the Dragon. The Stand is much, much better though.
    5. The Wastelands
    6. Insomnia
    7. Wizard & Glass
    8. The story "Low Men in Yellow Coats" from Hearts in Atlantis
    9. Wolves of the Calla
    10. The short story "Little Sisters of Eluria," from Everything's Eventual
    11. Song of Susannah
    12. The Dark Tower

    Again, you can read the Tower books without doing this, but doing this makes for a much richer ride. If you'd rather not commit to all these titles, just make sure you read Insomnia and the two short stories.

  6. I'm usually averse to the book-of-the-moment hype, too, but several things, especially those tropes you pointed out, have intrigued me about "The Passage." Also the title, so ominous, so simple ... doesn't it sound like the title of something Cormac McCarthy would write? Your praise for the book clinches it. I'll check it out after I'm done with "Mao II."

    Katie, I finished "Watership Down" for the first time not too long ago myself. I was also flirting with the idea of taking on the whole Dark Tower series, too, but so many of my friends are reading it right now and, therefore, are geeking out about it. I want to have my own mental space to let it breathe a bit. Morse, thanks for your recommendations on how to tackle the series.

  7. El-ahrairah would be proud of this group! Adams' book is one of my favorites. Plague Dogs is also good and similar tone.

    Regarding King, I've only read Eyes of the Dragon... which you say ain't all that hot which was my book report too.

  8. Oh, thanks a lot for that, Morse. I was just going to read the official seven, so it's nice to know which others ones to include as well. And I'd been meaning to read The Stand eventually anyways, so all the better.

    Watership Down really surprised me, I liked it much more than I had expected to. I'm a sucker for stories about stories. And you're right Colonel, The Passage does sound like a McCarthy title. Like it could be a sequel to The Road.

  9. Colonel,

    If I were going to sum The Passage up in a sentence, I'd say its "The Road meets The Stand." There's definitely a McCarthy influence/similarity here. I managed to blow through another 250-some pages last night. This thing really cooks.


    If you've only read Eyes of the Dragon I'd recommend trying another (better) book. Might I suggest (1) The Shining, (2) The Stand, (3) The Green Mile to begin with? All three are modern "classics" (or so I'd argue), and all three are well worth your time.

  10. Katie, I agree that A Supposedly Fun Thing is a good place to start. It's nonfiction, but it gets you accustomed (somewhat) to his tone and style. (Consider The Lobster, his other nonfiction collection, is not totally indicative of his style.) Brief Interviews, from what I've read of it, is short fiction that occasionally ties together. It's different, but not a huge departure from the nonfiction. Then you can read the rest, but I'd take on Infinite Jest at a period when you have little going on in your life. I tried to start with Jest, and I got through 100 pages or so pretty quickly, and then fell off. I'm not even sure how much all of that will prepare you for Jest, but I guess that's kind of part of the experience. If I were to read one writer's stuff (at this point in my life, at least), I'd go DFW.

  11. I forgot about this; this post essentially echoes what Morse and I said.

  12. Morse,

    I recently finished The Passage, and found it enjoyable, if a touch predictable. The number of times a major character appeared to have died only to be saved offscreen grew to be annoying. Without spoiling anything, let's just say that the ending of the book did not leave me as hanging as it would like.

    Still, I feel that Cronin did a good job overall. The way I would describe it would be very strong execution of fairly routine material. A little like a literary version of Shutter Island, which I felt was a very well executed movie despite that I could mostly predict what would happen.

    For the record, you really ought to check out Larssen's trilogy. I was a fan before it was popular (don't you hate that phrase?) and I almost don't want to read the third book because I know it is the last. Very enjoyable.

    As for the Dark Tower, Katie, I feel it is a very strong series that stumbles just a bit at the end. I recently reread a good portion of the series and I understand what King is going for at the end (you'll know what I mean when you get there), but the resolution of long-running plot threads, while thematically appropriate, left something to be desired. That said, the VERY end of the series was excellent, and fully appropriate to the story King was trying to tell, I think. It's just portions of the last book that will leave you a little cold.

    Morse is right, you definitely need to at least read Insomnia and Low Men in Yellow Coats to get the full experience. Salem's Lot is almost a requirement as well.

    Morse, if you want a truly challenging and non mainstream read, try 2666 by Roberto Bolano. It's like nothing else I've ever read, and it affected me on a profound level.

  13. Greg,

    You and I came out in the same approximate place regarding The Passage. I enjoyed it a great deal but by the end of it I had the same general issue with it that you did. As I say above, it's nothing you haven't read/seen before, but Cronin's execution really elevates the material for much of the length of the book - there are some truly beautiful passages(no pun intended). I still have no issue recommending it without reservation as a solid summer read, though I think The Stand is better overall, and does more with fewer pages (I had no idea The Passage was the first part of a trilogy when I wrote the above).

    I'll definitely check out the Bolano book. Thanks much for recommending it!