Friday, May 25

Summer Reading, Part Three: Trash

"Read the Dell paperback."

You have to be of a certain age to recall when those words would come at the end of a movie trailer. It was usually some genre film, something a little exploitative, a summer popcorn movie that was either based on the kind of paperback people would buy at the checkout stands in supermarkets or was written in haste between the editing of the film and the release date. I think half of these movies were produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures because that was usually the first part of the announcer's sign-off: "An American International picture. Read the Dell paperback."

How many people bought those books? It's hard to say though there's a booming business of these titles on eBay. It's nice to know there was a time when major motion pictures and the venues that advertised them -- theatres and television -- once actually used to use summer as a time to promote reading, even if it was merely an attempt to wring every last penny of profit from their films.

Today I am singing the praises of that ghetto of fiction known as Trash, or sometimes Beach Reading, and almost always as Genre. I'm not necessarily digging into the actual trash mentioned above but that fiction which tends to get marginalized because of its connection to popular culture. I won't attempt an exhaustive list of titles or suggestions, instead I'm taking a look at some of the books that many of my friends and I read and passed around during the summers when we were teens. My goal is to suggest some older titles that are still around and just under the radar of most young adults. If some of these titles seem like classics of their genre, well, I can't pretend any of us knew or cared about what sort of shelf life these titles would assume when we first read them.

One of my first "adult" summer reads was Ian Flemming's Bond classic Diamonds Are Forever. I bought it at some yard sale, among the go-cart parts and old kitcheware, laid out on a blanket with a bunch of other trash. I was eleven and it cost all of a quarter. I had seen a couple of Bond movies prior to reading this book and I might have already seen the film version, but on a lazy July afternoon I picked this thing up and started to read.

It might sound obvious to say this, but at the time I remembered thinking the book was nothing like the movies. There was something way more adult about all this, the language was foreign to me, the pacing and storytelling alien. It was tough slog at first because I was still trying to marry the book and images from the movie into my still-developing cranium. And then there was all that narrative, all those points where the author explained Bonds thinking and rationale. Huh, there was actually some thinking going on behind all that action, some deep cover and intel gathering. He wasn't just a spy or a man of action but a trained agent in the British Secret Service. There were dimensions to his character and *pop* suddenly Bond is a bit more real. Oh, and here's a surprise: it was really about diamond smuggling, with no evil villain planning to send a laser into space to blow up parts of the world.

I had two other Bond books in my collection -- did I pick them up at the same time? -- but I don't recall reading them. And I've meant to go back and reread Diamonds Are Forever or any other Flemming that looked interesting to see what my adult mind makes of it all. A few years back they repackaged the covers of the books, upped them to trade paper size (mine were the smaller paperbacks), which I found appealing. I would need to reconfirm this, but readers deep into the Alex Rider series (or even the Young Bond series that's a few titles in) might enjoy a little old school cold war spy genre fiction. From here one could suggest some Robert Ludlum, John le Carre, or Len Deighton. I am a particular fan of Deighton's Harry Palmer books and equally of the movie adaptations which featured Michael Caine. It's Caine's spymaster turn that is the physical inspiration for Austin Powers which is better appreciated when you get the joke. You might even be able to introduce a spy fiction buff to the broccoli that is Graham Greene, especially Our Man in Havana which borders on parody of the genre.

The penultimate summer movie, the one that actually created the mold for all summer blockbuster movies, is Jaws. When it came out I felt compelled to read the book first. In fact, knowing it was a bestseller before a movie I almost felt a certain sense of indignation that a movie had been made from the book and that most people would see the movie and never actually read the books.

I was a teenage boy and self-righteous indignation, especially over things I knew little or nothing about, came naturally.

I don't remember how I came into possession of my paperback of Jaws but I do know that I lent it out twice before trying to read it myself. I just had a hard time getting started. I must have reread the first 20 pages a half dozen times before I sat down determined to bust my way through it. I gave myself a 50 page deadline and had finished twice as many pages before I thought to look at the page numbers. The rest of the book came easy and when I finally saw the movie... well, let's leave my views about Steven Spielberg for another time and forum.

Jaws, at its simplest, falls into the man-against-nature horror genre. Typically there is a thing that is out to get people and there's a lot of running around trying to sort out what the thing wants and how to kill or outwit it. Character plays second fiddle to the action, which requires the story to be populated either with people of average or lesser intelligence than the reader to luck into a resolution or, at best, a challenge of wills in which the strongest (protagonist/s) survives.

For somewhat similar books I don't imagine there's any harm in Michael Chrichton's Jurassic Park, though I think The Andromeda Strain is a lesser known story that teen readers might enjoy. Also Robin Cook's Coma, William Wharton's Birdy, William Goldman's Magic (skip the film, the adaptation is atrocious), and Benchley's post-Jaws follow-ups The Deep and The Island.

For many I knew growing up summer reading could be summed up in two word: Stephen King. Personally I had some problems with early Stephen King where the characters had a paranormal abilities that were referred to as "the push" (in Firestarter) or "the shining" and I couldn't fully grok King the way my friends had.

Until The Stand.

Much talk these days about apoca-lit in YA fiction, much talk about how kids really seem to dig the political, ethical and moral questions that arise when the world faces a destructive-yet-unifying cataclysm like a comet knocking the moon off course or a plague devouring humanity. But when you weld these elements together with the muscular fists of a writer like Stephen King you have the ultimate in summer reads. Biological weapon released, killing a vast majority of the population who are haunted by visions of either an old woman near a corn field or a handsome stranger in the desert, drawn to either one in a battle of good verses evil for the survival of mankind. I haven't even glanced at this book since it's original publication and I can still remember images clearly from the book, more so than things I have read in the past year. Rib-sticking, something that isn't going to leave you feeling empty, yet nothing that's going to show up on an SAT test.

I would say that any Stephen King would work but I haven't read them all and I have encountered some duds, especially in the 1990's. Stick with the classic King, the books that made his name, like Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, Firestarter or The Shining. If you've got a reader who's already run those books down why not give them a taste of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby, William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, David Seltzer's The Omen, or Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror. These aren't exactly apoca-lit titles (I've got one coming up next) but they are still very sturdy reads.

I read another book the same summer I read The Stand and that was Lucifer's Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Now here was something fun: a newly discovered comet originally believed to pass Earth appears to be on a collision course. While the scientific community assures the public that impact isn't likely a televangelist fans the flames of fear and suddenly everyone's on a survivalist kick. The comet breaks up as it nears Earth and lands in various places across the planet, causing earthquakes, volcano eruptions and tsunamis-a-plenty. What's left of civilization is in ruins, fighting for survival among militant cannibals. Fun!

Larry Niven's name is probably familiar to science fiction fans for many books including the Ringworld series. I have tried to start other Niven/Pournelle collaborations but they just didn't click for me. That aside, what were talking about now is science-fiction which has steadily increased in its general approval since when I was a lad and is now (finally) practically respectable literature. Why, 30 years ago Phillip K. Dick might have had the word "wacko" in front of his name but now after Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly -- films all made from Dick stories -- he is being embraced as a unique and genuine American voice. Blade Runner and Total Recall were not the names of Dick books (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and the short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale respectively) and it might be fun (in a devious way) to present the originals sans mention of their movie adaptations on the cover to a reader to see if they make the connection.

A younger reader with a hunger for actual science fiction or fantasy may have already discovered the Douglas Adams Hitchhiker series, or the Anne McCaffrey Dragonriders of Pern books (one was good enough for me, thanks), or Octavia Butler's dystopian Parable titles -- all fine suggestions if they haven't been previously experienced. But there was one book that really tweaked me one summer and that was Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human. There was something truly alien about the feel of this story about a group of people with various powers who could blend together as one, sort of a next step in human evolution. To my younger self it felt like The Fantastic Four crossed with The Twilight Zone and only later did I understand some of the more psychological aspects. Sturgeon also wrote the novelization for the movie Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, giving him some true trash credentials. For something a bit more light and fun, a bit more Renaissance Faire-meets-Star Wars, try Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle, the first-written-but-middle-title in the timeline of his Majipoor series. I think it makes a good transition from a fantasy world reader into the more politicised sci-fi world. I'm sure that statement's going to upset someone. So be it. It's what I read then and what I'm suggesting now.

I'm going to cheat a bit here and talk about my summer reading after my first year of college. Technically I was still a teen, and I think that if I'd had this genre tossed my way earlier I'd have loved it. I'm talking about detective stories, especially those old school hard-boiled types. I'm talking about that triumvirate of explorers from the dark underbelly of the American psyche: Dashiel Hammet, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Hammet, the former Brinks man invented both Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles and practically the entire genre we now recognize as hard-boiled. Cain's gritty stories traffic in a world of femme fatales and dirty double crosses, a bit on the misogynist side of things but no one comes out smelling like a rose with Cain.

For my money though it's Chandler all the way. Phillip Marlowe is his man, prowling the streets of Los Angeles in the 30's and 40's, pulling the most disparate threads and ties them into tangled nets that eventually solve the crime. Chandler claims to have been influenced by Hammet but it's Chandler who perfected the lyricism of the private detective's inner voice. You might have better luck teaching kids how to write more concisely, and more vividly, by teaching them from Chandler's stories than from Hemingway. Chandler, in describing Marlowe lighting a pipe in the smoking car of a train, taught me a word that I hope one day to use in my own fiction: frowst.

I loved this summary of Phillip Marlowe from Wikipedia:

Philip Marlowe, is not a stereotypical tough guy, but rather a complex and sometimes sentimental figure who has few friends, attended college for a while, speaks a little Spanish, at times admires Mexicans, and is a student of chess and classical music. He will also refuse money from a prospective client if he is not satisfied that the job meets his ethical standards.

And to think they used to call this kind of stuff pulp, after the cheap paper it used to be printed on in magazines. They made plenty of good movies from this stuff as well, inspiring an entire genre of film called noir: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely. All good stuff.

* * * * *

What these books and many, many more like them have in common is that they were paperbacks, they were cheap and, without exception, they were intended for adult audiences. If there's one thing teens love to do is assume they are ready for "adult" reading material as soon as the bug hits them, and I don't imagine it's been any different throughout history.

But looking back and then turning forward I am struck with how unified and national tastes were once upon a time. Many of these books weren't on the bestseller's lists because they had high orders from bookselling superstores, these were the books everyone read, and knew, and talked about. Maybe the closest thing we have to something similar in recent years is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and the popularity of that book remains a mystery to me even today as I found it filled me with inertia. But there was a time (I imagine some publishers and editors moon about this late at night at their favorite speakeasy) when the bestseller list was full of books -- for better or worse -- that were actually read by lots and lots of people and everyone would talk about them the way people now stand around and talk about the results of American Idol or the most recent developments on Lost. There are fine books out there, yes, yes, but how many of them are really capturing the national imagination and get read (before being optioned for movie rights) or that aren't being flogged by Oprah?

As I said from the beginning, this was my list and my experience. These were the books I discovered as a teen reader, or wish I'd discovered earlier, that make for good, solid summer reads. I'd love to hear what others discovered in a similar vein, particularly those who can speak to the romance genre that, as a boy, never held any pull with me.

Where to now? Let's see...
First there was Low Humor
Then there was Non-fiction

Next up: Shorts, perfect for summer weather
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