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It’s hard to say a lot about Neal Stephenson’s latest solo-written novel without spoiling its best ideas and plot twists. Since many of the books pleasures comes from those, I will settle for saying that the palindromic title presages the overall cleverness of the book. Depending on your interests you will probably find the balance of discursiveness versus plot off from time to time, but overall Stephenson’s careful explanation of concepts in the context of a complex social, political, and cultural framework is world building at its best. I don’t know if he has sequels in mind, but there is plenty of potential for it in the rich story he has created.

groomed for murder

Looking for a fun read with some mystery and a little sex? Look no further than Vivian Rhodes’ Groomed for Murder. Set in Los Angeles and written in a breezy style that fits the SoCal vibe, the book is marred for my ears by frequent sexist language and assumptions. Nevertheless, the plot is solid and the characters are well-formed. It’ll  hold your attention and keep you turning pages.

the last detective


If you like a mystery in the English style (think Midsommer Murders), then The Last Dectective is right up your alley. Smoothly written, with interesting characters and some unexpected twists, the novel is a solid contribution to the genre. Themes include the conflict of the technology with “old-fashioned” smarts, trouble with authority, and the use and misuse of police power.

old school


Stories are important to me. I think stories are important to most people. We use them to share our days, our lives, and our histories. Stories entertain us and help us know who we are and where we came from. And the stories we tell about ourselves, together with the stories that are told about us, can become who we are in the minds of others. If those stories are not true, they can get us into trouble. But not always.

Uncertainty about the power and effect of stories, the way stories define or don’t define our identities, is a major theme in Old School (Tobias Wolff, 2003), a novel told in a series of short stories that seem like chapters until the last chapter/story, which is only just connected to the rest of the book. It feels like Wolff calling attention to the structure of the book by taking us out of the narrative flow. Only then do you go back and realize that each chapter could stand alone, that, in addition to being about stories, the larger book is made up of a series of smaller stories.

In addition, large portions of the novel are dedicated to talking about writers and the stories they write. So on many levels this is a story about stories. It is like poems about poetry, a cliché that, in this case, does not lessen the power of the product.

The power comes from the sharp, clear prose. To call the prose sparse would be too strong. Efficient is too utilitarian. Elegant and beautiful miss the mark as well. It’s one of those moments when you just want to say it is good writing; you know it when you see it. The writing is good enough to make a story about privileged white boys in a small private boarding school on the east coast in 1960 compelling – and for me, that’s saying something. Themes that include social class, passing for white privileged, the relationship between sons and fathers, community, and integrity also help.

But even as Wolff marshals the power of stories to define ourselves, he also questions it to the point of asserting that we become who we are without realizing it. For himself, that means “the life that produces writing can’t be written about.” Not because language is incapable of capturing it, but because “it is a life carried on without knowledge even of the writer, below the mind’s business and noise.” Therefore, “no true account can be given of how or why you become a writer, nor is there a moment of which you can say: This is when I became a writer.”

For Wolff, it seems, we tell stories about this or that moment in our lives, pretending they are turning points. But in fact these are fictions and the truth of our selves is “in deep shafts where phantom messengers struggle toward us, killing one another along the way; and when a few survivors break through to our attention the are received as blandly as waiters bringing more coffee.”

Old School shows how stories help us feel alive and wise and full of energy to rise above that blandness, while simultaneously recognizing their limitations. They are crystals of knowledge we can hold and dissect and talk about. They help us remember and think about ourselves. Wolff’s ranks among the best at all these.

100 top novels — 15

New addition: Old School (#50), by Tobias Wolff

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
12 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
13 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
14 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
16 The Plague – Albert Camus
17 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
18 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
19 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad
20 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

21 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
22 Native Son – Richard Wright
23 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
24 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
25 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
26 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
27 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
28 Wolf – Jim Harrison
29 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse
30 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov

31 Blindness – Jose Saramago
32 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
33 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
34 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
35 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
36 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
37 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
38 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
39 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
40 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

41 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
42 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
43 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
44 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
45 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
46 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
47 1984 – George Orwell
48 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
49 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
50 Old School – Tobias Wolff

51 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
52 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
53 Mao II – Don DeLillo
54 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
55 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
56 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
57 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
58 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
59 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
60 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane

61 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
62 Neuromancer – William Gibson
63 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
64 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
65 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
66 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
67 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
68 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
69 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald
70 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

71 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
72 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
73 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
74 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
75 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
76 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
77 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
78 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
79 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling
80 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin

81 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
82 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
83 The Fall – Albert Camus
84 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
85 Straight Man – Richard Russo
86 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
87 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
88 Kindred – Octavia Butler
89 The Road – Cormac McCarthy
90 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare

91 The Street – Ann Petry
92 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
93 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
94 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
95 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
96 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
97 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
98 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
99 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
100 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

solo faces


I didn’t know writing could be both spare and self-indulgent. Solo Faces showed me how. James Salter’s story of a climber’s quest for the sublime is beautifully written in mostly short, evocative prose, almost poetic in the way he constructs scenes and uses images. Yet, somehow the story drags on, even as it follows a man driven to climb alone on the ice and snow of the Alps. It is just one of several attempts to feel, to live his life more fully, to deal with his profound ennui.

I don’t have much time for the ennui of a person I’ll never know. Perhaps this was Salter’s sentimental farewell to a life he once lived pushing his own limits. If so, it is a beautiful and empty exercise for me.

tales from earthsea; the other wind; game of thrones

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the first three books of her Earthsea series in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Le Guin then turned to other work until writing a fourth and, she thought, final book in 1990. Belying her expectations, she returned to the story in 2001 with a novella and some short stories (collected in Tales from Earthsea), as well as another novel (The Other Wind).

In the thoughtful foreword to Tales from Earthsea, Le Guin writes about how it is to come back to the Earthsea world and some about her writing process. And then she discusses the purpose of fantasy in an age of “massive, rapid moral and mental transformation”:

For all our delight in the impermanent, the entrancing flicker of electronics, we also long for the unalterable. We cherish the old stories for their changelessness. Arthur dreams eternally in Avalon. Bilbo can go “there and back again,” “there” is always the beloved familiar Shire. Don Quixote sets out forever to kill a windmill . . . So people turn to realms of fantasy for stability, ancient truths, immutable simplicities.

Whether you agree with Le Guin or not about the purpose of fantasy, she’s clearly looking for ancient truths and immutable simplicities in the Earthsea books. Her heroes and heroines struggle for good against evil, striving for balance and harmony. Her plots reward humility and punish the proud and self-serving. One has the sense while reading Le Guin of being more attentive to the weather, the birds, the rocks, the people, and all the physical world. You become more thoughtful and deliberate about what and how much you say, introspective and attuned to the world. And in reaching for wisdom, she sometimes succeeds, though the knowledge is often more an inexpressible sense of rightness than explicit knowledge (which is a strange thing to write about something written in words).

Tales from Earthsea and The Other Wind, continue and expand the world, adding rich context for and completing (in unexpected ways) the story begun in the first four books. The tone, while written for a more mature writer than the first novels, is consistent with Le Guin’s earlier work, and includes a more complex and subtle conversation about integrity, responsibility, and destiny. If you enjoyed the first four Earthsea books, you’ll like these two as much or more.

By comparison George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series (actually called the A Song of Ice and Fire, but ever since HBO started making the books for TV, everyone knows all the books by HBO’s, and the first book’s, title) appears to be about little more than wars and political intrigue, with a little sex and a dash of magic on the side. Nevertheless, after reading the third in the series, A Storm of Swords, I find them compelling in their exploration of motivation and character and the sometimes-unpredictable plots hold my interest through a 1000-page paperback.

The world Martin paints is often brutal and misogynistic. Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be a “point” to the books – unless it’s that almost people are driven by their desires for power, wealth, sex, and honor (not necessarily in that order). The few people with integrity and principle are as likely as not to die cruel and obscure deaths as the rest of their less-principled neighbors. And maybe that’s part of the point: to demonstrate that good deeds are often not rewarded and bad deeds punished. Or maybe Martin just wrote them because he enjoys developing a more fully-imagined fantasy world and story than almost any before written.

Which brings me back to Le Guin’s foreword in Tales from Earthsea.

Commodified fantasy takes no risks: it invents nothing, but imitates and trivializes. It proceeds by depriving the old stories of their intellectual and ethical complexity, turning their action to violence, the actors to dolls, and their truth-telling to sentimental platitude. Heroes brandish their swords, lasers, wands, as mechanically as combine harvesters, reaping profits. Profoundly disturbing moral choices are sanitized, made cute, made safe. The passionately conceived ideas of the great storytellers are copied, stereotyped, reduced to toys, molded in bright-colored plastic, advertised, sold, broken, junked, replaceable, interchangeable.

Considering the differences between the worlds Le Guin and Martin have created, my first impulse was to say that Martin’s was “commodified,” a sort of R-rated version of Tolkien; the use of the same double-R as middle initials seemed to reinforce that impression. But, after further thought, I don’t think Martin’s series deserves Le Guin’s derision. While very different than Le Guin’s, his anti-heroic approach, frequently killing off sympathetic characters, is certainly as risky.

Le Guin’s foreward implicitly puts the Earthsea story in a short list of classic fantasy, along with the Arthurian legend, Tolkien’s Middle Earth story, and Cervante’s iconic novel. Martin has been called the “American Tolkien.” For my money, neither Le Guin’s nor Martin’s tales have the elegiac punch that these three do, with their strong sense of the loss of innocence, passing into a new age of ennui and disillusionment. Nevertheless, Le Guin and Martin are great storytellers and earn a place among my hall of fame of fantasy writers.

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