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Book Reviews

The Scribbling Man

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This was a slow, casual re-read in the form of an audiobook. The narrator sounded like an AI and had the most stilted voice, but I tried not to let that mar the experience too much.

I initially read this 6 years ago and still agree with most of my qualms from back then. Here are my original scores for the individual stories though:

City - 3
Huddling Place - 4.5
Census - 3.5
Desertion - 4
Paradise - 3.5
Hobbies - 2.5
Aesop - 1
The Simple Way - 2.5
Epilog - 2


(I think these have changed a bit, but not by much. It's not fresh in my mind, so I'll leave them be.)

City has a great premise, but you do have to suspend your disbelief. It is a collection of stories that can stand alone but essentially function as a novel, having an overarching narrative/themes/characters that occur throughout. It progresses chronologically over a span of many generations, and I would liken it to something like Asimov's Foundation - although this is certainly not hard sci-fi and much more whimsical. The premise is simultaniously epic and quaint, Simak often being credited as the father of "pastoral" science fiction. It's small-town, soft and fluffy sci-fi, but taken to a grand scale. It's the fall of man, with the rise of dogs, ants, and remnants of robots left behind to aid the former.

All the stories are connected to each other and are divided by "notes on the text", where we have canine philosophers speculating on the story's origins and whether or not "man" as a species is more than a myth.

There are two main narrative problems I have with City: So much hinges on something called "The Juwain Philosophy", this moral plan that is supposed to carry mankind to the next age. I won't go into detail, as I'm keeping this relatively spoiler free (or at least vague), but the stakes of this fall apart both due to aspects that are dated, as well as by what can only be regarded as either incredible character incompetence or the author's own negligence. There is also a certain character who is practically made out to be the hero of the novel, and yet could easily be traced back as being single-handedly responsible for the destruction of mankind. Again, I put this down to an oversight of the author's.

My other issue is that, while the first half of the book is pretty solid, things meander a lot toward the back end, eventually becoming overly pensive and indulgent. Characters wandering around, speculating on life, the universe, everything... it's very tiresome and more than a little pretentious since the execution is verbose and repetitive. It's not often I say these things of a man like Simak, who I believe was a humble and modest man, and generally wrote some very short, tight stories that touched on profundities quite naturally. But there you have it. This, easily his most acclaimed work alongside Way Station, is not his best in my book.

However, I do think City has its moments and is worth reading. At the very least, I would recommend "Huddling Place" as a standalone short story.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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This is a book that was recommended to me many years ago but I’m just now getting around to it. I wish I hadn’t put it off. The title is a clear reference to Doestevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. I read that book way back in high school (and I’m 50 now), so I’m sure I missed some parallels. But the main themes are obvious. Particularly those about religion and god. Doestevsky’s story-within-a-story “The Grand Inquisitor” remains a favorite of mine and is something I reread from time to time.

The title also alludes to baseball (for those not aware a K is how a strikeout is scored on the scorer’s sheet). This book is also heavily about baseball, at least in the first half. That may be a turnoff for some but as a baseball loving American it was welcome for me. Baseball is a romantic sport in America and this book does it justice.

Finally, this is a story about family. Namely a family at specific time in American history: the 60s (defined here incongruously as 1963-1973). The family itself represents parts of America at the time (the counterculture, the eastern-religious philosopher, the all-American who goes to war, the traditional America that was opposed to war and questioning religion, the traditional America that supported the war and religion, and the seeming bystander that just wanted everything to work out for the best for those they care about). But it’s not that simple at all. These are rich characters and the story is not simply a metaphor.

The one thing not represented very well is women. Sure there are female characters who play important roles in the story but they are more foils for our male characters. It is called The Brothers K after all so I guess I was warned. Still the lack of development for several key female characters is disappointing at the least and severely detrimental to the themes in at least one case.

Also, lest you believe this is simply an anti-religion, anti-war story that elevates and romanticizes the brothers who opt for eastern enlightenment or hippy radicalism, this book gives equal rebuke to all. I loved the portrayal of hippy Everett getting out debated by his older professor or eastern philosopher Peter enduring a rude awakening in India. This book doesn’t posit easy answers. It mirrors the 60s in that half a century later we’re still trying to figure it all out.

One of my favorite books and authors is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. That book I read in college. This is a book much more suited to my current station in life as a father of two eight year olds. If I can get them to sit for it, I’m hoping to read this book aloud with them when they reach their teen years.

I laughed; I cried. Cliche but true. And every word grabbed me. It’s a book I’ll revisit and think about for a long while. And it was immensely entertaining.

Given the reminders of John Irving, I wanted to revisit that author next. I’ve read most of his work, but there’s one glaring omission: Garp. I never read it because I had seen the movie. Every other Irving novel I’ve read before the theatrical adaptation. So it’s been about 30 years since I’ve seen the movie and the time seems right to finally read The World According to Garp.
 

Moe_Syzlak

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Despite being a fan of Irving I have never read what is perhaps his most well known novel. The reason is I had seen the movie prior to becoming a fan of the author. Unfortunately, despite many decades since seeing the movie, many crucial plot points were spoiled for me and I felt a diminished enjoyment while reading knowing what was coming in several key sections.

That said, it is remarkable that this book, written by a man in the 1970s, is still so relevant today. That is, in fact, a sad truth the author himself ruminates on in his 40th anniversary afterword. The brilliance of the novel is in its ability to create real characters that are, in many ways, quite unbelievable. These characters are also messy, morally grey themselves. There really aren’t simple good guys in this book. The book is Garp’s though it could certainly be argued that his mother, Jenny, is soul of the book. Jenny’s unconventional life choices make her an icon of the women’s movement. But some of her choices themselves are morally questionable at best such as Garp’s conception.

One of the best characters and certainly most prescient is Roberta Muldoon, the former Philadelphia Eagles tight end. It’s hard to believe this character was written by a straight man in the 70s. Roberta, in many ways, is an anchoring presence for the story’s gender issues. Much like those (like myself) born with much privilege that aren’t forced to confront being white, being straight, being male, Roberta is the character that is forced to examine her gender and seems to have the most grounded sense of gender. This former NFL trans woman is the voice of reason on gender. Bravo! But male, female, straight, gay, trans, these characters have flaws. I can only evaluate the novel as who I am, however, and it felt real for me and, most importantly, fair.

But the success of the Roberta character (and many of the characters) belies an issue I had with the novel. The characters aren’t psychologically deep. They often seem to exist as symbols and almost comic. But nonetheless they still felt alive to me so a minor quibble.

One aspect of the book I was not expecting was the focus on parenthood. Without getting into spoiler territory, the book definitely hit me harder than it probably would have if I’d read it before having children of my own. So while I would first and foremost call it a book about gender, it is also a book about being a parent and, specifically, the anxiety therein.

Finally it’s a book about the creative process. Garp, himself, is a writer and excerpts of several of the character’s novels are included. These excerpts reflect the larger novel.

It is enormously funny and enormously tragic. It is easy to see why this was Irving’s breakout novel. But, it is not among my favorite Irving novels. But it is still a wonderful novel.
 
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