I decided to get back to some fiction early in the year. My reading had been slowing down, and I'd been a little overwhelmed by life in general. Fiction always provides a nice respite, which in turn lets me relax in other aspects of my life, and now I'm all relaxed and ready as spring hits here in coastal Georgia.
Some recent reads:
Doomed by Chuck Palahniuk. Madison Spencer, who beat Satan at his own game in Damned, returns to the world of the living for her annual Halloween candy collection (candy bars are currency in Hell), but through some trickery on Satan's part, gets stuck for the year (if you're not back in Hell by midnight, see ya next year).
She had previously communicated to her Hollywood do-gooder parents that the way to Heaven was through general rudeness: cussing and flatulating cheerfully. She was kidding, of course, and now she faces an Earth full of joyfully disgusting humans, all doomed to Hell for their behavior, thanks to her. And she's back to fix it.
Palahniuk is the author of Fight Club and a pile of other books I love, and while this isn't among my favorites of his, it's definitely good for a few hours of escapism.
Not a Star by Nick Hornby. What happens when you're a middle class English mum and you come home to a DVD slipped through your mail slot, and the guy on the cover looks a lot like your son? What happens when you discover it is your son? What happens when the film on the DVD is pornographic?
Hornby is another one of my favorites (High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, others), and this novella from the Open Door series is great for a rainy day with a cup of coffee.
Bad Monkeys by Mike Ruff. I'm not sure how I've never heard of Ruff before (I mean, there's a quote on the book's cover from Christopher Moore), but this book is a twisted, paranoid look at the world. I don't even want to give much away, but if you think you're being watched, you probably are — but not by the government or your ex.
Here are thoughts on what I've read during the month of January.
Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species. Darwin's seminal work is primarily based on a combination of observation and speculation. Say what you want about creation vs. evolution and the scientific method, but Darwin went in, studied, and wrote about what he saw. I think there are a fair number of things we can take away and apply to ourselves today. Go read that post; it's too long to include in a brief summary like this.
Chuck Palahniuk, Damned. Long-time friends and readers will know I'm a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk's books. I've read most of them; I'll probably wind up skipping his portrait of Portland, Oregon, and the "remix" version of his novel Invisible Monsters, which essentially is an alternate ordering of the chapters (I have, however, been waiting for the film version forver – the prose comes together more neatly than did Fight Club, and while the message isn't quite as universal, it's at least as bold).
Our heroin in Damned is a recently-deceased 13-year-old girl who wakes up in hell, where she gets a telemarketing job and recruits new people to hell because, other than the bad smells and general grossness, it's not all that bad. The people are fun and you can do pretty much anything you want. Her parents are a business mogul and a movie star who do lots of fake do-gooder stuff (like show up to awards shows in SmartCars and adopt orphans from third-world countries right before film releases and then tuck them away forever at boarding schools). We get the story of her life, and we get to watch how she turns hell into someplace beautiful.
At its heart, this novel is a humanitarian and religious farce. Palahniuk's continuing in the right direction after bouncing back with Tell-All; I thought Pygmy tried too hard and had a lackluster ending, and I thought Snuff was a complete throwaway. Palahniuk's next novel is reported to be Doomed, a sequel to Damned.
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity. True story: In 1995, my college roommate, Joe, and I could only play one song together on guitar: Peter Frampton's "Baby I Love Your Way." Our outlet during finals week was to play it over and over; so much so that through the open window, we heard our neighbors scream, "No more 'Baby I Love Your Way'!" That's important to the story, because it's that song that reels our protagonist, Rob, a middle-aged record shop owner with a tough relationship history, back into love of music and love of love.
Also, it gave me the opportunity to recount a nearly 20-year-old story of younger-Josh silliness.
The thing I remember most from the film version of "High Fidelity" is Jack Black dancing in the aisles to "Walkin' on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves. That scene happens in the book – Monday morning, that song, everything. And for as fun as I thought the movie was, the novel is so much better. We go through Rob's self-loathing and self-discovery, we go through his break-ups and many more pints of beer than the film lets on.
Plato, Republic. Yeah, I know, between the Darwin and the Plato I didn't exactly do a month of light reading to open up 2013. I did get a major takeaway from Republic, but it's not what you think. Sure, there's the Allegory of the Cave, and Plato really lays out the design of how we think. But it's the way we get there that interests me. It's by way of conversation – Socrates speaking with Glaucon. We don't need to bury ourselves to have an epiphany. Sometimes, it's working it out in a group, or with someone else, that you really get the most important work done.
It reminds me that other than Wednesdays, when I play racquetball, work with a personal trainer and play in a tennis league, the only people I talk to are JB and the checkout people at the grocery store. I need to spend more time with people, expand my viewpoint.
I've been a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk since reading Choke a few years ago. I swallowed the rest of his novels and one of his nonfiction collections pretty quickly, and have been faithfully waiting for each novel since.
His new novel, Tell-All is a return to what got me hooked – a somewhat ridiculous but still semi-plausible story line with an ending that makes the reader say, "Wait, did that just happen? Let me read those last 20 pages again."
It's been a long time coming for me. I was disappointed that Rant turned into a cheap sci-fi joke at the end; I thought Snuff was a total throw-away book that probably sounded good after a bottle or two of wine; and Pygmy's redemption-of-the-villain ending was way too shiny happy for me.
This is supposed to be from the guy whose every review called him funny and subversive – I guess that's what happens when your first novel is Fight Club.
Katherine Kenton is an Elizabeth Taylor type. Hollywood actress, famous leading lady, lots of husbands (or "was-bands") in her wake. The novel is narrated as a tell-all by Hazie Coogan, the ugly girl who was a better actress than her Miss Kathy when they were younger, but she could never compete for parts with those good looks. So Hazie becomes the assistant. She's a maid. She dresses and coaches Ms. Kenton. She's there when all the husbands die, and when young strapping Webster Carlton Westward III comes into Kathy's life. And she's there to bury Katherine Kenton when the time comes and publish her best-seller, because anybody who's ever lived in a star's shadow has everything but the last chapter written and ready to go to the printer.
Tell-All brings back the we-thought-she-was-beautiful character types I loved in Invisible Monsters, which really needs to be made into a movie, if anyone's got backing money to commit, since it seems to start off then falter every few years.
Anyway, read this book. It's summer, it's the perfect time for some fun fiction, and this definitely fits the bill.
David Fincher did such an awesome job with Fight Club, though the box office draw for it was low. So Clark Gregg had quite a challenge ahead of him: do artistic justice to a really good, but really tough, book, and still put some butts in seats.
For opening weekend, it was only on one screen in town. We went to a 4:25 showing, and the 67-seat theater was almost full.
Gregg's version is very commercially viable. It's short (run time is around 90 minutes), and he managed to get an R rating on it (the book is very NC-17).
I clearly am not alone in thinking it was an OK interpretation.
Palahniuk fans are, admittedly, a hard bunch to please.
I went with someone who had not read the book, and the only Palahniuk she was familiar with was Survivor, which looked like it was going to be optioned as a film, but, well, 9/11 happened, so no more airplanes crashing on purpose for a while.
She was very conflicted about the movie, on a "I really shouldn't like this, but I kinda do" level.
I enjoyed it on a "this is entertainment, and I'm glad I spent an hour and a half in a theater watching it" level (especially with the dinner that followed).
But, yeah, it was an OK interpretation. Victor bottoms out in a much different place, and the intricacies of the choking scam aren't fully revealed. For me, that was really the brilliant part of the character – that he's got a really good ledger system for it, despite the fact that he's a royal screw-up in most other parts of his life.
Anyway, see it. If you enjoy movies, see it for the diversion. If you enjoy Palahniuk for the art of Palahniuk, see it because if you want more of his books to be optioned, this needs to do well.