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review 2017-05-18 21:59
Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I've waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author's fault or mine. It's silly to assign blame when one doesn't like a book; I suppose this one just wasn't for me, and I wish every book was.


On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much "me." The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator--I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to--borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious "accident." The game also embodies what I understand to be the book's major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.


The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn't until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean's "accident," though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery...except it's not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you're even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don't have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.


As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn't. A book can be about roads we do and don't take, how our choices don't always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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review 2017-02-25 23:16
Universal Harvester
Universal Harvester - John Darnielle

What did I just read? What was this really all about? I really thought this would all come together somewhere but in the end, I think I am more confused than ever. There were stories, a few of them taking place in this novel, where they began and ended, I was never quite sure until I was already involved inside of them. It began with some videos, a customer complaining that there was something beside the intended movie on the screen when they watched it at home. I wanted this story, I wanted to know what was on that video but I soon found myself in another story surrounded by different characters who had their own drama and I was drawn into that. This novel was too much work and I should have put it down but I finished it.

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review 2016-03-04 04:59
Wolf in White Van
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

Sean Phillips has lived an isolated life due to his disfigurement from a teenage injury. To make a living he runs a game through the mail.  When his game has real life consequences Sean is called on to account for it, this leads him to a retrospective state where we go back through his life to the point of his injury.  


I really didn't like this book. The injury felt like it was suppose to be this big reveal but I feel like Darnielle told us what happened a zillion times and didn't meaningfully dive into the why. Listening to this book kinda reminded me of listening to a hipster being really introspective at the end of his life.  Is that too mean? I didn't hate the writing style I just had an issue with the lack of content in this book. 

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review 2015-12-10 21:26
"Wolf In White Van" by John Darnielle - hypnotic read but...
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

John Darnielle has a very distinctive prose style: long, lyrical sentences that weave paragraphs that gain weight as much from the complex route they travel as from the content they convey.


He narrates the audiobook version of "Wolf In White Van" and brings to the text a calm, almost uninflected, but never boring, tone that speaks of intelligence, imagination, disengagement, patience and hopeless endurance.


The narrative of "Wolf In White Van" is a Möbius Strip of continuous stream of consciousness, punctuated with ellipses in both content and thought that have the effect of making your imagination fill in the gaps and impose a pattern.


The content of "Wolf In White Van" is a walk through the mind Sean Phillips, a broken, scarred, isolated man who spends more time in his head than in the real world and perhaps more time in his imagination than in his memories or his current experiences although he can't be entirely certain of this.


This is a clever book: beautifully designed, skillfully told and deeply original.

It is also a very unsatisfying book, not because the content is unpleasant or because almost nothing happens or even because of the self-consciously intellectual presentation but because the solipsism at the heart of the novel is sterile. When I'd unfurled the plot and understood the path that Sean Phillips had traveled, I really didn't care.


At one point in the novel, the origin of the title is explained: "Wolf In White Van" was alleged to be a Satanic message that could be heard when a Larry Norman song was played backwards. When, as a boy, Sean Phillips hears this allegation, he wonders why the devil would go to all the trouble of writing his message backwards, if he really wanted it to be heard. I felt pretty much the same way about this novel. It is a puzzle that is more interesting than its solution; a game that is about the journey, and how we bring our own lives into that journey when we populate gaps and impose patterns, claiming the narrative and altering the story, rather than being about the revelation of the plot.


If this kind of thing appeals to you, you'll be giving this "Wolf In White Van" five stars. Personally, I gave it three because it reminded me of a Tinguely sculpture: elaborate, ingenious but lacking in emotional impact.

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text 2015-03-29 05:14
Anxiety of the Future Redux
The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future - Naomi Oreskes,Erik M. Conway
Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle
Adventure Time Vol. 2 Mathematical Ed. - Ryan North,Shelli Paroline,Braden Lamb
The Wrenchies - Farel Dalrymple
MaddAddam - Margaret Atwood
California - Edan Lepucki
Star's Reach: A Novel Of The Deindustrial Future - John Michael Greer
Bar None - Tim Lebbon


Last January, I kicked off my BookLikes blog with a theme of post-apocalyptic novels, and I decided to return to this theme this year. The last few months has been a time of great and sudden change for me, good change, but still, it can be strange to look back to a completely different world a month before. It's striking how quickly everything can shift, though in general changes happen slowly and often we hardly notice when we have passed the point of no return.     




For instance, in Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, the authors write a fictional historical reflection of the “Penumbral Age,” when industrial civilization began to fray and collapse due to self-inflicted climate change. Writing from the perspective of scholars from the Second People’s Republic of China, circa 2393, it reads like something that could be assigned to first year students in a low level history course. An amusing glossary of archaic terms like “environment,” “capitalism,” “communism,” and “internal combustion," the academic accounts of the extinction of Australia’s human population, and the resettlement of the people once known as the Dutch in the Nordo-Scandinavian Union make it a harrowing and thought-provoking read. Using fiction to predict the tragic results of current trends is one of the major sparks behind post-apocalyptic literature, and here is both a disturbingly realistic and hopeful look at what we will face in coming decades. Also, Oreskes’ and Conway’s experiment with fiction sets up one of the main themes I noticed this year, as well as providing the background for many of the future worlds laid out in the other works I read.


It is true that human life can only truly exist in the present, yet we tend to spend a lot of it concerned with both the future, and the past.  Fears and hope for what lies ahead commingle with memories of triumphs and tragedies from the past, whether looking forward with worry for a time in which we have no control or looking back with nostalgia to a time we understood. Much of apocalyptic literature, for me, seems to spring from the intersection of this juxtaposition. The apocalypse, and thoughts about the coming future in general, often feel to be the result of our looking back at the past and trying to use it to make sense of the future, but of course, they all stem from our present concerns. The books I read for this theme exemplify these issues.



Whether envisioning a world as the logical result of climate change and economic decline of our current times, or one stricken by an invasion of demons from another dimension, I noticed an interesting current of childhood nostalgia, fantasy, and imagination running through many of these accounts of the end of the world. Games, storytelling, and other themes associated with childhood exemplify the preoccupation with nostalgia mixed with a fear of things not getting better as we get older. In my favorite book from last year, Wolf in White Van, for instance, Sean, the narrator’s, main escape from the horrible, disfiguring accident that put his own life on hold is his creation of the Trace Italian, a table top play by mail game of choice and consequences in a post-apocalyptic future America. Why did Sean choose this imagery and what significance did it have to his own life, changed so drastically and irrevocably? As seen in the course of the novel, these fantasy games had real consequence on the "real" world, too. I thought it was fitting to chose this entry's theme music from among the apocalyptic songs of the Mountain Goats. 




Ryan North’s Adventure Time comics, illustrated in pitch perfect imitation of the show by Shelli Paroline, and so good at a capturing the feel of Pendleton Ward’s seminal cartoon series, also shows a broken, post-nuclear war world as imbued with a childlike magic, wonder, and nostalgia. As the for the everyday adventures of youth under the broken down remnants of contemporary society. Ward has said in interviews his favorite emotion is “feeling simultaneously happy and sad,” a sentiment that fits well with this contradictory look at the future. The second volume, in fact, deals with a post-apocalyptic take on the setting itself, which makes for an interesting recursive take on the characters and themes of the show.  




Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies, another graphic novel, also deal with these same themes, depicting both a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by children after beings of supernatural evil decimated the world, as well as the “real world” of the present; which is real, and which is imaginary? Dalrymple’s art work here is breathtaking, the amazing and detailed watercolors bring the diverse characters to life and highlight the stark beauty and horror of the dead world of the future. While following the heroes quest motif of the Wrenchies and their quest to put an end to this evil, at great cost to themselves, the story structure is loose and much of the dialog deeply philosophical, making it a bit inaccessible at times.  




MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood’s conclusion to her dark, cutting, and farcical sci-fi trilogy begun with Oryx and Crake, MaddAddam  also deals with the primacy of stories and storytelling, and its relation to the truth, the past, and the future. As an allegory for the current horrors of corporate capitalism it can come across as a little heavy handed, but as the human survivors attempt to come to terms with their horrible pasts and look forward to a new future with the “noble savage” Crackers, who may be primed to repeat humanity’s mistakes or create a more harmonious and beautiful world, and the stories and "myths" related to them by Tobey and her successors may be the key to how they turn out. While my least favorite entry in the trilogy, and it seems like the most old fashioned take on the apocalypse I read this time, there was still a lot to think about.




California, by Edan Lepucki, was perhaps the bleakest and most realistic novel I read. California best captures, I feel, the zeitgeist of today as it’s young, urban protagonists, husband and wife Cal and Frida use their DIY throwback skills (baking, gardening) to scrape out a subsistence in the wilderness after they abandoned their home in the collapsing city of Los Angeles. The cause of the collapse is left vague, but climate change, economic failures, and war all have a hand in it, and they can still remember their childhoods, when hot showers and the internet were still things.  Frida treasures a few “artifacts,” pieces of her former life she keeps hidden (most prominently, a fancy turkey baster) and spends much time going over the events of her childhood, while Cal hopes to start completely anew in this new world. Thoughts of the past and future intermingled among both characters, especially as Frida finds out about her pregnancy and another relic from her past both threaten or promise to save them. How will our relationships survive and evolve in the end of society?




Star’s Reach, by Archdruid and peak oil blogger John Michael Greer, is in interesting account of an America few hundred years in the future, after society has regressed to a far more sustainable level after the environmental degradation of the 20th and 21st centuries. “Meriga,” a loose nationstate ruled by a hereditary female "Presden" has become a neo-feudal culture not unlike most of human cultures throughout history. It is interesting how this fairly “hard” science fiction world follows a quite nostalgic “fantasy” quest style, with the main character becoming a member of the “ruinman” guild to explore the dungeon-like remnants of contemporary society for rare materials and other treasures. I found the setting particularly interesting, with it’s matriarchal nature revering religion and preserved remnants of modern culture, trying to identify the location through the garbled names of the market towns and fortresses, like Sisnaddi (Cincinnati) and Nasul (Nashville). It is interesting how it too follows the theme of how history takes form, how the past is remembered and how we try to present ourselves, though l it is a bit didactic in it’s goals and occasionally comes off as a bit preachy. Still, quite a unique story.




Finally, Bar None by is another world stricken by a supernatural curse, which seems to have killed off most of the population with a terrible plague and transformed some people into strange creatures, though it begins with a small band of survivors hiding out in a Welsh manor, enjoying a rather cozy life before deciding to head out into the world. The past remains a major concern for all of the characters, no less the narrator, who recalls his wife and life before the end, and the delicious beers he enjoyed with her. Each chapter is named after one English brew or another (Old Empire, Summer Lightning, Cornish Rebellion- sounds delicious!), adding to the nostalgic ambiance, and as the narration went on and strange things begin to increase, the devotion to beer remains a solid anchor.

Perhaps I’ll enjoy a beer to think back on the last year, and where am I now, and reflect on where I may be in another year! This time, the mood music piece is "Slow West Vultures," from the Mountain Goat's Album the World About to Come, which seems quite apropos here. 


*Theme music for blog: "Slow West Vultures," The Mountain Goats, We Shall All Be Healed, 2004

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