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The ___ Dies At The End

A big stack of books

I went on a beach vacation. These were the books I finished during the trip. I had to make an emergency trip to the store when I finished the ones I had brought with me and wasn't bored with reading yet. What follows is in no particular order.

Everybody Knows by Jordan Harper
Published by Mulholland (Hachette), 2023

This is a pitch black contemporary mystery set in Los Angeles. It features sexual assault, extreme violence, corrupt LAPD guys, a tortured romance, multiple narrators, powerful, evil men and a bunch of cameos by famous people. So yeah: it's a book that is aware of James Ellroy, and no, it's not as good as a book by James Ellroy. (Except for the books by James Ellroy that are bad.) The stuff in here that is bog standard is done effectively, but without enough spice or originality to be that impressed by--a teenage girl getting pregnant with a rich creep's baby, a never seen rich crimelord who people talk about in hushed tones--nor are the two leads as cynical and cruel as they probably should be, considering their status in the world (a junior fixer at a Hollywood publicist crisis management joint, and an ex-cop who now labors in a guy-who-beats-people-up kinda job). But I still was impressed by how completely nihilistic and terrifying the cops are in this one--despite not being a huge component of the book, their behavior at a tattoo parlor and a later nightmare beatdown serves as to be so frightening that it nearly overwhelms the book's actual narrative. They're a hostile, cruel force, completely loyal to one another, in service only to one another, and sidestepped or appeased by their financial betters, irregardless of how this shapes the plans or goals of those who control the world. In previous books like this, corrupt cops are often in service to some type of crime overlord, but here, Harper depicts them purely as an end to themselves: a band of roving killers that exists to maintain the environment of power and death, and it is this psychological environment that they are beholden to. It's their job just to make violence and the control violence allows part of the landscape, to give fear a stink and texture that's unforgettable, so all within understand: this is where you live, and this is what is in charge. When any other form of power comes up against them, no attempt is made to bend, break or hire them: they are to be avoided until they find another outlet to exert their punishments. From the unseen perspective of the book's larger criminal and social enterprise (which the characters outside of the LAPD call "The Beast"), the roving gangs of cops are like spots of wildfire on a map. Drive around it. It's somebody else's problem, and there's no money to be made in fighting it. This book's darkness reads like an infestation.

Snow Falling On Cedars by David Guterson
Published by Vintage now, Harcourt then, 1994

This was made into a movie that I have to imagine was pretty, but boring, and I'm pleased to say I had that thought before I read a handful of contemporary reviews that described it as such. Regarding the book: I remain unsure, even now, if I read this book for the first time on my trip or if I have read it before. The cover, a pleasant picture that reminds me of one of my twenty favorite scenes in Without Limits, has always jumped out at me, as has the general curiosity I have for any book that was hugely popular upon release, even more so when said hugely popular thing is the only thing that the person involved ever did that achieved that level of breakthrough success. While reading it, I was struck over and over again how familiar it all felt--a courtroom drama that doles out the story of a death and the man on trial for murder, the war veteran reporter covering the trial, still in love with the accused's wife, the historical treatment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor. Lots of details about fishing boats, all of it written in that way that's engaging enough to pay attention to, believable, but never interesting enough that you'd be tempted to question it, look into it, care--it all smacks of accuracy. Who knows if it is? Did people question how the characters on Friends paid for those apartments when they were nine years old? A meaningless exercise. There's a chapter on storming the beaches of World War 2, but I've already given the copy away so I couldn't tell you if it was D-day or not--it doesn't make a difference. Everything in this book is an engine that gets you to the next part, the conclusion--which involves not one, but two Encyclopedia Browny deductive leaps that had me grimacing both at how stupid they are and my own initial reaction, which was that I felt the lazy satisfaction indistinguishable from immersion into a lukewarm pool. It's the very definition of a vacation read, which is probably why it is the only one on this list that I've already handed off to someone else: because she had a trip coming up.

Witch Hat Atelier 1 By Kamome Shirahama
Published by Kodansha, 2019

I put together a panel on manga for a conference, and one of the more charming parts of it was when the group of experts all spontaneously gushed about how much they enjoyed this series and how it was a great gateway to manga. It was one of those always pleasant moments when a bunch of pros are being genuine with one another onstage in front of a bunch of (mostly) strangers and you can tell they'd be talking the same way if they weren't onstage at all. I didn't buy the book right away (comic's very own Bill Kartalopoulous did, although I don't know if he liked it), but I did get around to it eventually. Shirahama is an extremely detailed illustrator, or their studio is--one aspect of manga coverage that has lessened my enthusiasm for talking about it in any detail in the last few years is the general opacity of which of these are auteurist psycho production machines and which are rooms full of production machines, with a psycho in charge--but however it is getting onto the page, there's just a lot more of it in a fashion that makes her US output (mostly for Dark Horse, I think) less of a surprise. It doesn't look like super-hero, but it is clearly genre, reminiscent of Promethea, or an advertisement for 90s Sandman sometimes--long, elegant figures, beautiful buildings, the rare natural scene that could fit with any magic-adjacent garden scene. The actual meat of the story is pure set up--a young girl loves magic, discovers its secrets because she's a chosen one type, sees her mom semi-permanently immobilized, and heads off to magic school, where she meets a funny little girl with a good heart, a mean snob girl who is extremely skilled and doesn't like the protagonist, and a general implication that there's some kind of coming conflict which our lead will be an important factor in. I can see the appeal, wish I felt it myself.

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns
Published in 1959, Back in action thanks to NYRB, 2003

True confessions of stupid motherfuckers: I spent the first third of this book going "yeah, vet's daughter", thinking abstractly that at some point this war veteran's service was going to come up. And that thought also popped into my head, like a bobble head wandering through the background of my mind palace, throughout the last 2/3 of the book. Here's the thing: this is a book about the daughter of a veterinarian. At no point in the book is that not 100% clear! And yet, no matter how many times my critical brain would address those thoughts and say "hey--he's the other kind of vet. That's why there's all the animals and sequences where he's helping the sick animals", I still happily shit that thought out every time I picked up the book. 

At times, this reminded me of a fairy tale, or an abbreviated, meta-take on Dickens where a young woman ends up in a bunch of shitty situations due to poverty and abuse, is shuttled between some colorful characters and cliches, all the while uninterested (or unwilling, or incapable) of caring enough regarding the back and forth to take any real agency in these potential relationships, with the momentary exception of one hot guy who takes her skating and she lowkey stalks him for a while. She sees it all as a waste of time, less an obstacle to be fought or engaged with, instead to be avoided. By the end of the book, when the strange fantasy element becomes reality, I wondered--where is this going? Is it really gonna work out for this dour champion? Spoiler warning: nope!

Lapvona by Otessa Moshfegh
Published by Penguin, 2022

Boy, this book has some whiny ass reviews out there. Some professional book reviewers better hope they never run into a book that's legitimately disgusting. What the fuck happened to grown ups? It's a book set in a medieval time period, of course it's gonna have a certain degree of gross to it. Those people didn't have toilet paper, their life expectancy was like 33 years old! So it's gross! Okay. So it has no "likeable characters"--this is also true, there's no characters to root for, no characters you'll miss when they go off a cliff. I imagine that if books are a checklist of life improvement squares that will push your human potential forward by decreasing your stress levels (through abstract, self-focused pleasure) or teaching you something about the world (like a piece of trivia about history, or the origin of a favorite word) while avoiding unpleasantness, then this book is a flop. I didn't care that much for it because I thought it was a little one-note in its hostility towards our modern age (it's a Covid era book, the local medieval ruler is really stupid, greedy, and infantile) and it got boring after a while, waiting to see which character was going to die next, and how. There's a banality here that wouldn't be repaired by making any of it more palatable. She got the stink right, and for that, give her praise.

The Guest List By Lucy Foley
Published by Harper Collins, 2021

Woof woof! Reese Witherspoon missed her calling as an oatmeal critic.

Copra Round Seven By Michel Fiffe
Published by Image Comics, 2023

Great, obviously. I'm working on something about Copra so I'll get to it then.

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer
Published in 1963 in Germany, back in action thanks to New Directions, 2022

One of the best of the bunch, a truly ass kicking book with one single science fiction element--an invisible wall has come down, separating a woman from the world around her. From what she can see from her remote Austrian location, all living things on the other side--people, animals--are dead, just shut down like retired machines. On her side are a cow, dog, cats, deer, and enough of a headstart on food to survive, if she can keep her shit together. The book is a journal she's written after some time behind the wall, and it takes most of its page count to figure out how long that is, and it consists of both the minutia of survival--her food concerns, shelter--and her relationships with the animals. It's a wild, fascinating book that would be remarkable if only for the seamless perfection with which she isolates the variety of behaviors of the animals--you don't relate to a cat like you do to a dog, or a cow, and the nature of these relationships, and the chosen's truly fascinating stuff. There's a level of interiority captured here that is miles beyond most writing about interior life--at times, I felt like what I was reading was an actual diary of someone having this experience, but not because it was "realistic", but instead because it felt like I was experiencing text that I had written myself, in a journal of my own thoughts, as if my mind was writing it out in front of me as the thought occurred. Tremendous work.

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
Published by Penguin Random House, 2009

This is the third time I've read this one, and the second time I've read this copy, which belonged to my father-in-law. I wish I had been into Jack Reacher books when he was still alive, because I would like to know what he liked about them. Over the last few years, I've read his old copies when I visit my mother-in-law, and while not all of the books are there, my favorites--this one, Enemy, Persuader, and the first one--all are. My father-in-law and I only spoke a bit before dementia made that a challenge, but the reality is that finding topics that interested him before he became ill was not easy either. It would have been fun to talk about this one--it's the one where Reacher gets some final revenge for 9/11, and the one where you find out Jack's thoughts on knife fighting. (He doesn't like it.) I bet I'll read this one again next summer.

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published by Knopf, 2021

I've actually never read Ishiguro before, but after reading this one--which I got on a lark, after picking it up multiple times only to reject it to a total disinterest in its subject matter--which is AI, in a very "episode of Black Mirror" fashion. (I actually like most of that show that I've seen, it's a clever piece of genre entertainment mostly harmed because it's not enough anymore to watch something and just go "hahah, that was fucked up", you're supposed to make a big deal out of its "emotional resonance" and "man's capability to mirror trauma"--no thanks pal!) Anyway: I did pick this up, and I'm glad I did. The trick to it--and I mean trick in the kindest way, I mean trick in the sense that Ishiguro gives himself a challenge, to swerve left instead of right--is that it's not about what makes us different than robots, but about what it would take for those different from us to just describe us, our choices, our moments, our lives, without access to the messy disorganization of our thoughts. It's a book that examines life without a soul, but not without a spirit, and as the pages and moments within it accumulate, and as a system of understanding is build off of a system that misunderstands, the story of a life gets designed and told. You're never given true access to people in this book, and by the close--which is both too upsetting and endless to truly consider, but at the same time, too simple and honest in the telling not to have some sense of beauty all the same--I found myself genuinely moved. A succession of moments and choices and risks taken. It's a life lived well, by a thing that never lived. 

-Tucker Stone, 2023









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