Friday, November 20, 2009

Book 34: The Dark Tower by Stephen King

This is for Tim Taylor who will be outraged by the inclusion of anything written by this 'ferocious hack' on a Best Books list.

I can't say that I fully disagree with him either. But that doesn't stop me from loving his books.

'The Dark Tower' is a sprawling 7 book fantasy that straddles two worlds and seems to be cobbled together from memories of black and white westerns and reading 'Lord of the Rings' by flashlight under a blanket.

To give you an idea how much I love this series, I've read it 4 times. All 7 books. Do the math. 7X4=28.

He has better books. 'The Stand' and 'It' come to mind. But this one seems to mean more to him than any other. That intensity comes across and makes it his most personal work even as it is the most fanciful.

There is a kind of apologia inherent in singling King out for praise, as if he weren't worthy, as if the simplicity of his prose and our collective reaction to it were somehow a black mark on modern society. Or so the literati would say. And I count myself among them, cultivating my snobbish categories, looking down my nose at the Grishams, Browns, Binchys and Crichtons of the world.

But I loves me some Stephen King.

Oh he's put out some stinkers. You can almost smell the booze and cocaine while reading 'The Tommyknockers'. 'Pet Sematary' is almost unreadable. Even his best books have a kind of thinness to them. He opens with a few finely wrought sentences but soon he is swamped by the onrush of story and can barely get his pen out of the way fast enough to just let that shit happen.

So. Is Stephen King a great writer? Absolutely not.

Do I love his books? Some, not all.

This one is 7 novels, roughly 5,000 pages. I've read it 4 times. 20,000 pages. Sometimes you can't explain love. You just feel it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Book 35: All Over But The Shouting by Jim Walsh

If I were to measure this list solely by sentimental markers this book would be at the top. Number one. Here's why.

This book is an oral history of my favorite band The Replacements. Those who know me know that 'favorite band' is an understatement of colossal proportions. The Replacements are in my DNA.

So the book has that going for it. Jim Walsh, a musician, rock journalist and longtime friend of the band, interviewed anyone and everyone who had been part of the scene The Replacements came out of. Paul Westerberg declined to be interviewed which is only just seeing as his words and voice dominate the discussion as it is. And this band doesn't have 18 gold records and meticulous rock historians cataloging their every move. This book is crucial because all of this happened before it was easy to chronicle every fucking second of every fucking day.

But the real reason that this book means so much to me has nothing to do with The Replacements or music or the book itself.

It has to do with my son Cashel and how much he means to me and who he is. (In a related sidenote, I have only ever asked for one autograph in my life...I had Paul Westerberg autograph Cashel's school photo when I saw him play in Anaheim...he softly said, "He looks like Johnny', his son...a very sweet moment).

The book was published in November of 2007. Cashel was 10. I'd talked about the book, knew it was coming out, couldn't wait to get it. Cashel and Melody conspired to get it for me for Christmas.

Now, Cash was in elementary school at the time and blossoming. He'd finally settled in at Roosevelt Elementary and was shaking off the effects of three big moves (NY to Maine/Maine to TX/TX to CA) in two years. I would walk from my job to his school every day and walk him home. We would have time to kill until his mom came home from work.

Here is where Barnes and Noble comes into the picture. We would mosey over to the 3rd Street Promenade and browse the stacks. Cashel would find the latest book he was interested in, I would do the same and we would sit in our little corner and read. It was here that he convinced me that he could go down to the lower level by himself to get another book. It was here that we talked about how to handle adversity in school, handle his emotions, something I was in the process of doing myself.

One day in November we walked in as usual. Before we went up the escalator to the kid section, I stopped to browse in the Music Section.

Cash saw the book before I did and draped himself in front of it nonchalantly, hiding his Christmas present from me.

Now, I'd known the book was out but I'd deliberately not looked at it because Melody had forbidden me to do so, seeing as it was going to be my Christmas present.

So the history of the band that I'd desperately fallen in love with in high school was now contained in a hardcover book hidden behind my ten year old son Cashel as he tried to convince me to go upstairs.

I've read it three times since then. Cashel is two years older and in middle school. Rumors of a Replacements reunion have been swirling louder than ever. I hope it is delayed until Cash is old enough to go. I'll hide the tickets from him and pretend we are going to some boring dinner party.

I'll never forget him in front of that bookshelf, as if he could possibly conceal what he'd already given me, as if the gift was the book, as if he needed to give me anything at all.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Book 36: Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor

I picture Flannery O'Connor suspended over a wheat field, the night sky screaming away behind her, stars trying to get through the black, get away, be unseen by that all-knowing eye. Her hair is on fire but her thoughts are so cold it can't hurt.

'Wise Blood' doesn't begin, it continues. The sum experience of reading it is akin to waking up inside the dream of a vagrant ecstatic in the midst of a psychotic break.

I once dreamed that I was riding my bicycle along the wharf of Newport, Rhode Island on a gorgeous summer day. I saw bikinis under sarongs, paper cups filled with intoxicant refreshment, glistening tans and gorgeous bodies lounging away under sun that bestowed everything beneath it with a distinct glamour, myself included.

Then I heard a slight buzzing. Without slowing the bike, I turned to place the noise. Perhaps fifty feet behind me flew a white insect, following lazily, outlined against the ancient hull of a tall schooner anchored in the harbor. Some instinct told me I was in danger.

I began to pedal faster hoping to lose the bug. But instead the buzzing grew louder, so loud that I became unnerved and crashed to the cobblestones. The bug landed on my shoulder. It looked like a grasshopper and a cockroach but it was completely white. It sunk a pincer into my neck and instantly I knew I was dead.

I noticed that my knee was bleeding but the paralysis from the bite was so instant that I couldn't feel the cut. I died within seconds.

To those who think that you die if you die in your dreams I share that story. And I say read 'Wise Blood' because it is a dream of death that will not kill you either.

But there is the field. There she hangs, head on fire, stars scrambling to escape, eternity personified.