Sunday, April 12, 2015


My new job comes with the added feature of a longish commute. (Which after a decade of no commute has been one of the biggest adjustments. Driving in traffic has the same boredom/what-am-I-doing-with-my-life factor as waiting in a long line at the DMV, but it comes with the necessity that you have to pay attention at all times so you don't DIE, which makes it one of the most arduous things we have to face regularly. Only the stories of the horrible way that most retail/service jobs schedule employees these days have made me not feel so sorry for myself.)

After a week or two of trying music CDs and, dear Lord, broadcast radio (though that's how I found George Ezra's "Budapest"), I realized, as Stephen King has opined: "how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing 'Highway Star'". So, I have turned to books on CD to pass the time.

My first choice was Life After Life: by Kate Atkinson, because I saw it on a lot of best-of lists last year.  At first I enjoyed the quaint British prose read by actress Fenella Woolgar, who excelled at the various accents. The Irish maid, for example, had more presence and spunk than any Kristen Stewart performance where she's dressed. 

The premise or plot (which kind of intermingle here) is the many iterations of reincarnation of Ursula Todd, a wealthy British gal born in February of 1910.  Each time she dies, she's reborn as Ursula and somehow has an inkling of taking a slightly different direction at the time of death in her last life. It's never explained how this occurs, what the underlying  mechanism of this is - though at one point Ursula mentions a perception she has of living many times, and some gentlemen gives a quick, tap-dancy overview of Buddhism and reincarnation.  So, it's like Groundhog's Day, but her journey starts each time from moment one rather than when Sonny and Cher's calliope-esque hit blares from the clock radio the next day.  But it's NOT like Harold Ramis' Buddhist opus as there is almost no intentional humor.  No, as with most literary novels, all is dank, sad, often violent, slightly smelly, the lighting is jaundiced, love (such as it is) is strange, and life is mostly pointless and hopeless.

Oh, and Judas Crispies, every fucking meal is fully described, including the quality of the ingredients.  Perhaps as Hemingway maintained one should always mention the weather as it is a universal experience, Atkinson must feel each layer of every sandwich must be described, as well as dessert and whether it went with the wine or not, because we've all been there.  You know when you notice a particular tic someone has, and from then on it drives you crazy every time they do it; eventually you focus only on that to exclusion of what they are saying so you are forced to ask them to repeat what they just said, only to have to endure the thing a few more times?  Eventually I was white-knuckling the steering wheel and grumbling like Lurch when cucumber sandwiches were mentioned. 

In the positive column, the descriptions of hunting for the living after a Nazi bombing run in London were gripping and vivid.  The face floating up out of the darkness of a basement in the light of a torch, bringing hope, only to then see the eyes are milky with death.  Or crawling through a destroyed and collapsing building and putting your hand on a pile of rags only to realize it's a baby, and then you notice the tiny hand.  Those were awesome and probably the only other reason, other than wanting to know how it all resolves, that I stayed with it. 

The darkness of the story really started affecting my mood, and I'd have to consciously shake it off before walking into work or home. I couldn't wait for for the story to be done.

Lesson learned: If you want a commute that's improved by books on CD, eschew dour literary novels.  "Everything sucks and then you die" is OK as a bumper sticker, but it's hell as a story experience. 

My next choice was Stephen King's latest, Revival.

Revival was much more enjoyable because King keeps things entertaining at the very least.  The story was fun in that you see a character develop from very good to sorta evil (which Kurt Vonnegut said to never do, but here it works).  Also, King does a very Harlan Ellison thing and presents an ending that on its face seems to indicate something it doesn't, and one character is completely fooled by that lie of omission.  Interesting.

Another interesting thing is this didn't feel like the whole thing was written by King.  Some passages certainly were, and the arc of the story was.  But there were obvious shifts in the use of language for some portions.  I've read a little bit of his wife, Tabitha (I've always thought that was the perfect name of the spouse of a major horror writer) and his son, Joe Hill (aka Owen King), and I'd swear that some portions read similar to their styles.  I wonder if this was a family project.  King fooled us once, ya know, with the Richard Bachman thing.

Now, you might be thinking, "Dude, you listened to it, you didn't read it, so that alone would make it hard to glean the style."  Well, if it would please the court, I submit that I started reading the book, and switched over to CD when it showed up on the shelf at the library one day (a nice surprise).  Even in print it didn't seem like King's style all the time. That said, he's proven he can write outside of his usual style; The Eyes of the Dragon, which he wrote for his daughter, was waaaaay outside of his typical wordification.  But it still had the feel and consistency of King, and you could still tell it was him if you looked under the bed, figuratively. Revival lurches around like a one-legged Zombie in style, and he even used the word "ejaculate" in the place of "said." Very un-King like. Just sayin'.

Just finished Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving, read by Arthur Morey.

It wasn't a consideration of mine when I got the CDs, but Irving's fine prose lends itself well to reading aloud.  To me, his prose lifts off the page and just engulfs you; it's magical. Even though I had the fantastic experience of seeing him read a portion of A Son of the Circus in person, it still didn't occur to me that listening to one of his books would be so much fun.

Last Night in Twisted River contains a lot of biographical information from Irving's life, particularly his approach to writing.  (To wit: he starts with the last sentence and works backwards.)  The usual suspects are in abundance: the main character grows up to be a writer, a wonderful tragicomic death, no lovers or married couples stay together for long, wrestling, and of course bears.

There's a fun part where Kurt Vonnegut shows up as a character, and I'll be damned if it doesn't sound like him.  Outside of some kind advice about relationships, Vonnegut tangles with Danny, the main character, over Vonnegut's dislike of semicolons, which Danny uses so often he even puts one in a title.  That's a great little easter egg for readers of both authors. (To save you the trouble of researching it: yes, Irving was a student of Vonnegut's at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. "Everything that Mr Vonnegut says to Danny in this novel, he actually said to me. Word for word." - from this fun article)

There was one section / subplot I wondered about, as it seemed extraneous at the time, but as is often the case with Irving, it had a beautiful payoff later.  Also, upon reflection, those seeming side-trips always suffuse his stories with a richness that's often hard to find in pretend stories, and give the feel of a life lived.

What spurred this post, along with my first serious foray into books on CD, was my vast difference in feelings for and reactions to the characters in Atkinson's novel and the ones in Irving's (and King's to a lesser extent).  I believe this is a direct result of the compassion the author has for the characters. I felt very disconnected from the characters in Life After Life because it seemed like the author was; she didn't really seem to care about her characters.  Their fates and emotions were something for her to merely report rather than bring the experience alive for you. However, John Irving appears to care about his characters very much - even the bad guys. His clear, deep compassion for their lives and travails is infectious, to the point of bringing manly tears to my eyes a couple times. King is more objective about his characters, but he does convey a fatherly concern for all (or maybe the distant concern of an Uncle, as he does refer to himself as "Uncle Steve" in magazine articles).

Finally, something else I noticed is that both King's and Irving's books had a LOT in common with the novel the directly preceded these.  Both of King's follow the story of a guy who lives in the grips of addiction when young, overcomes it, and ends up living in a mountain town in his middle years, getting to enjoy a twilight romance before the events at the end.  Irvin's are about a son who ends up traveling throughout their childhood with one parent, in one case to find someone and the other to lose someone, and both end up becoming entertainers as adults.  I don't know if this really means anything, and I'm going to explicitly state it didn't feel like a retread in either case - it was just the deju vu-esque feeling of having been here before.

All told, Last Night in Twisted River has become my second favorite of all of Irving's fiction (Owen Meany will forever rule).  If you haven't experienced it yet, give it a try.  (And hang in there, it takes a bit to get going.)

Till next time. 

Oh, and I may not succeed, but I've set a goal to post at least once a week.  Here's hoping.

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