Friday, November 27, 2009

Holiday Books -- Science Fiction/Fantasy 2009

The San Francisco's Holiday Books section will be published on Sunday, but you can already read my column online at It's not really a "Best of the Year" list, though some will view it that way. There's just too much good material and too little time for me to say definitively, "Yeah, these are the genre's finest selections, no doubt about it."

And for the first time, I've hedged my bets a little, adding a handful of books I've heard good things about but which I have not found time to review. Check it out, and consider adding the latest from Richard Kadrey, Cherie Priest, Jeff VanderMeer and others to your shopping lists this summer.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

In Defense of Stephen King

My review of Stephen King's "Under the Dome" ran in today's Chronicle, and it was not 100% positive. The book's too long and filled with too-familiar characters and situations. On a "weird doings in Maine" scale from the atrocious "The Tommyknockers" to the sublime "'Salem's Lot," I place it squarely in the middle. I enjoyed it well enough but will never be tempted to read it again.

My review prompted a reader to write and inquire about my opinion on why King has become a "literary darling." My correspondent threw around the words "hack" and "onanistic."

Stephen King is probably my favorite living writer. There are others whom I admire more and who have disappointed me less, but I can't imagine a time will ever come when a new King novel arrives and I'll just shrug and put it aside. I was imprinted on his prose too forcefully, at too early an age, to ignore what he offers.

I clearly remember sitting on our back porch in Portsmouth, NH, one summer day and reading a library copy of "'Salem's Lot." I was maybe 15, and I had no idea what the book was about. Not a clue, because the jack copy didn't give it away. The frisson I experienced in the instant when I suddenly realized that it was about vampires in Maine, set little more than an hour north of where I sat, remains one of the most delicious thrills I've ever enjoyed as a reader.

In quick succession, I read "The Shining," "Carrie," "The Stand" and "Night Shift," and I was hooked for good. I met him face-to-face at a signing for "Firestarter" at the Portland Mall and attended a press conference with him in Santa Cruz, when he was touring for "Insomnia" via motorcycle. One of my regrets is that I've never been able to arrange a one-on-one interview with him. I tried with "Under the Dome," but he's not coming to the Bay Area. So, sorry, Charlie.

"Hack" is one of those dangerous words like "nymphomaniac," used to judge people who give or get more than we think is proper. Whatever he may be, King is not a hack; he clearly cares about language, about his readers, about his characters, about the fate of the novel and the short story. Few critics recognize how experimental a lot of his work is, how willing he is to set new challenges for himself. He can be clumsy, sloppy, distracted and too in love with his own voice, but there's no doubt he means what he says.

At The Chronicle, I've reviewed at least 20 of King's books -- many good, many not -- during the past 25 years. I imagine I'll keep doing so as long as he, the newspaper and I are all still functioning.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From Garp to Twisted River

I've been reading John Irving for just a tiny bit more than 30 years. I picked up "The World According to Garp" in paperback during the second semester of my college freshman year, and I was enraptured by it. I couldn't put it down and didn't want it to end. It was one of the most purely pleasurable reading experiences of my life.

Of course, I think I read it at exactly the right moment, at 19, in 1979. I hadn't read much mainstream literary fiction at that point. I did fancy myself as a writer, so I liked the stories-within-a-story and the debates about the differences between fiction and autobiography. I was thrilled to read a book by someone who shared my experience as a resident of New Hampshire, who wrote about Exeter, a town only a few miles from my own.

I re-read "Garp" five or six years ago, and it holds up pretty well, though its mid-Seventies attitudes about feminism seem a little off and more than slightly creepy. What still works perfectly, though, is the tour de force "Walt Catches Cold" chapter, in which Garp tries to deal with his two obstreperous sons while his wife attempts to break up with her weaselly lover. Everything in that chapter is perfectly calibrated, balancing humor and suspense and irony and foreboding. Its last lines are among the most heart-stopping I've ever read, and Mr. Irving will forever be cut a lot of slack on my part because of how masterful that chapter and its aftermath are.

Unfortunately, I've never quite found an Irving book I like as much as "Garp." Some are just awful. I couldn't get more than 3o pages into "Until I Find You," and does anybody love "The Fourth Hand"? Others seem overly self-important, especially "The Cider House Rules." But I hold "A Widow for One Year" in high esteem, and though I'm not ga-ga about it like some readers, I see the appeal of "A Prayer for Owen Meany."

When I heard about Irving's new novel, "Last Night in Twisted River," I lobbied to review it for The Chronicle. (Truthfully, there didn't seem to be much competition.) And I'm glad I did. It gave me everything I want in a John Irving novel, but without most of the elements that make his lesser novels so irritating. Read the review and, if you're a fan of "Garp," see if it doesn't sound like something you'd enjoy.