Tuesday, May 05, 2009

BooksFirst - April 2009

Books Bought

Odalisque: The Baroque Cycle #3 by Neal Stephenson
Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore

Books Read

Island of the Sequined Love Nun by Christopher Moore
Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
Love as Always, Kurt: Vonnegut as I Knew Him by Loree Rackstraw


If you follow my reviews you may have noticed that I tend to read a lot of humorous fiction but lately I seem to be a tough audience. Recent books by renowned side splitters such as Terry Pratchett and Christopher Buckley have left me flat. Finally, I gave into the many suggestions and gave Christopher Moore a try. Eschewing his new ubiquitous novels, I went for an older novel that came highly recommended. I’m glad to report that Island of the Sequined Love Nun lived up to its billing. It was the funniest thing I have read in ages.

Far too many comic novels start out with a clever premise but eventually collapse of their own weight as the plot gets into the way and the running gags start going stale. From the coitus crashus opening to the final escapade, this book kept the laughs coming the whole way. The titular love nun is a co-conspirator in a nefarious cargo cult scam on a highly obscure South Pacific island. A down on his luck pilot gets drawn into the game and he has to fight for his life and his sanity. The characters are broad but true to their stereotype or anti-stereotype. For a book that relies on the culture clash between western civilization and benighted natives, the book throws political correctness to the wind for great effect.

Moore impressed me and I will definitely try some of his other works. I just want to pace myself. When you find writers this fresh and funny it’s easy to binge and burn out.

A wildly successful author who is a complete and total hack is Dan Brown. Real writers must all have voodoo effigies of him on their desks as a constant reminder that talent doesn’t always win out. I read The Davinci Code just after visiting Paris and even created several blog posts using the conceit of retracing the route of Professor Langdon in his pursuit of his blasphemous macguffin.

When I went to Italy last month I threw in a paperback of Angels and Demons that I could never quite muscle through before. On our bus rides between cities I read this third rate travelogue cum potboiler with an eye toward the geographic landmarks used in the novel. I carefully mapped in my Rick Steves guide all the churches, fountains, plazas, and obelisks to get to and then used them as a touring route. Since the big budget movie version is set to come out in about a week expect a rash of tie-in blog posts from me or visit my Rome and (forthcoming) Vatican City Flickr sets for a sneak preview.

The book itself is every bit as preposterous as I expected. Langdon has the deductive reasoning of an idiot savant Sherlock Holmes as he unerringly figures out obscure ambiguous clues. Each set piece scene is breathlessly over the top and the coincidences just pile up like murdered cardinals. By the end of the book the surprise twists are coming so preposterously fast it’s hard to keep up. Not to cause any spoilers, but if the movie follows the book faithfully, we will have a new contender for the Indiana Jones Refrigerator of Doom Implausibility Award.

As a putative Vonnegut fan I feel obligated to read all the ephemera associated with my favorite writer. Unfortunately, as his corpse cools, the jackals have come out to feed on the carcass. One such ghoul is Loree Rackstraw, a student he had a brief affair with while he was teaching writing and waiting for the fickle finger of fame to strike him. That she actually has sex with him has to be inferred from reading between the lines because Loree is too discreet to say so explicitly even when narrating how his wife shows up unexpectedly in the middle of the term. Since the title of the book is Love As Always, Kurt she is clearly claiming some connection that mere readers don't have.

While the ‘fling’ (as she calls it) is short-lived despite being perhaps resparked once between his marriages but while he is in a relationship with someone else (again she is too demure to kiss and tell), she manages to insinuate herself into the rest of his life. She maintains a pen pal relationship with him and makes sure they hook-up whenever the two of them are in the same state. When he’s not available, she drops in on his ex-wife and children whenever she can.

Each chapter is roughly written around the time period of one of his books and reads like a bad Christmas letter from boring people you don’t know. Rackstraw goes over what is happening in Vonnegut’s life and then tries to tie all that in with what happens in her life. The suicide of her husband devolves into a pop-psychoanalysis of how the many suicides in Vonnegut’s life affected his outlook. She constantly name drops all the other alumni of the Iowa Writers Workshop as well as the circle of literary critics and groupies Kurt attracted. I recognize names like Peter Reed, Jerome Klinkowitz, and Robert Weide from my own obsession with Kurt, but casual readers are going to grow bored and confused with all the inside baseball.

Rackstraw’s fawning over ever word Vonnegut writes is obsequious even in the eyes of superfans like myself. She quotes at length the most banal of letters to her as well as her suspiciously conflict of interest ridden reviews of his books. Worst of all, while KV obviously meant a lot to her over 40+ years, he comes off as a bit of a shallow dick. I want to remember Vonnegut as the literary lion he was and her waving of the bloody shirt just sullies the memory no matter how well meaning she is.


A Free Man said...

I'll check out Christopher Moore. I love a good humourous novel.

Thumper said...

I *love* Christopher Moore. The first book of his I read was "Lamb: The Gospel According to Jesus' Best Friend Biff." It's irreverent, religiously offensive to a whole lot of people, and funny as hell.

I don't think I've read a book of his that I didn't like.