dangerous when aroused

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.


Fri 29

Max’s Spectacularly Unhelpful Book Review, or: My 7,000 Pages of Shame

Max Max's Tower of ShameNow what we’re going to do is ignore the whole “What the Fukk is happening to Max’s new book?” question. Because it’s going to take some time to resolve, and me posting regular updates on my blog is going to freak everybody concerned right out, and for my own mental health I should probably start thinking about something else.

But thanks to everyone who wrote in with kind words. That means a lot. I’m sure this book will be published. It’s a good book. You’ll like it. The question is not if, but when and how.

So instead of alternating between maniacal cackling and weeping into my sleeve, I will write you a book review. This review is not of books I’ve read. That would be Helpful, because I could tell you if they were any good. This is an Unhelpful review, because all I’m going to say is how these books got onto my bedside table, where they have sat, neglected, as centuries turned.

  • On top is “Maisy Likes Driving” by Lucy Cousins. Fin brought this in one morning and wanted to read it. So I have actually read this one. It’s about 6 pages long and has pictures of Maisy driving things, which she enjoys. I can recommend it if you’re into Maisy and like to know everything that happens in a book from the title and are aged two.

  • Next is “Unpolished Gem” by Alice Pung. I met Alice at a writers’ festival and everyone said her book was good. Alice herself is so polite and smart and cute that I want to take her aside and say, “Stop that. You’re making the rest of us look bad.”

  • American Hoax” by Charles Firth. This I also picked up at the Sydney Writers Festival. Charles and I did a panel together, and afterward he bought my book and asked me to sign it, so I was forced to buy his, even though he was a complete tosspot. I say that because I know that’s the type of humor he’ll appreciate. Actually Charles I liked a lot, even though he’s not as polite and cute as Alice Pung. His book is a satire on… well, America, I guess. I haven’t read it.

  • Phineas Poe” by Wil Christopher Baer. I keep seeing Baer’s name pop up in connection with mine on places like Amazon. If that was enough to get me to buy something, I’d own a copy of this, but Baer came recommended, so I bought this collection of three novels. Unfortunately I discovered that it’s so heavy I can’t read it in bed without breaking the bones in my wrist. I got about four pages in and needed a rest. I think I might relocate Phineas to the bathroom.

  • The Contortionist’s Handbook” by Craig Clevenger. Actually, I have read this one. That shouldn’t be there. I liked it a lot, although not as much as “Dermaphoria.” This puts me firmly in the minority of Clevenger fans, though, so you shouldn’t trust what I say. See? Still Unhelpful.

  • The Art of Funerary Violin” by Rohan Kriwaczek. My Aussie publisher, Scribe, gave this to me, telling me it was hilarious. I thought it was a novel, but on closer inspection it really does appear to be about funerary violins. And I’m really not sure how hilarious that can be.

  • The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel. In LAX, about to board my flight to Melbourne after my 2007 American book tour, I had some leftover cash, and bought this because it’s meant to be good. I dunno, though. It looks very literary, and the problem with literary books is that if you don’t like them, you can’t even extract minor enjoyment out of the gratuitous sex and violence. You just have to sit there and wade through mind-numbing wave after wave of symbolism, eloquence, and character development. I hate that.

  • Third Class Superhero” by Charles Yu. I think I got asked to give a quote for this. It’s a short story collection. I liked the first story, then got distracted and never finished it. They sent me a second copy, perhaps thinking the first had gotten lost, and this bumped it right up to the top of my pile, but unfortunately just before I left on tour, and returned with Life of Pi.

  • Einstein Never Used Flash Cards” by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. This was very kindly given to me at a 2006 reading I did in Mountain View, CA, in by a guy named Peter, who thought I needed some parenting advice. Now that I think about it, that’s kind of insulting. Anyway, I read a little, but then Jen stole it. I recently got it back, which is why it’s relatively close to the top of the pile.

  • Heyday” by Kurt Anderson. The bookstore I read at in Phoenix, AZ, offered me a book for my trouble, and I chose this because I liked “Turn of the Century.” In retrospect, it was clearly the most expensive book in the store. I may not be invited back to Phoenix.

  • Persuasion & Healing” by Jerome D. Frank and Julia B. Frank. I read half of this as research for my latest novel. It’s an overview of modern psychotherapy. It’s written by a father and daughter, which must have been interesting. Imagine arguments in that house.

  • The Sleepers Almanac 2007.” A short-story collection. Apparently one of my stories will be published in this next year, so the publisher sent me this to help me figure out if that’s a good thing.

  • Prodigal” by Marc D. Giller. A sequel to his very good first novel, “Hammerjack,” which arrived just before a particularly busy time and got hammered down in the pile before I could read it.

  • The Cubicle Survival Guide” by James F. Thompson. I have no idea where this came from.

  • Alien Sex in Silicon Valley” by Dave Alber. The author gave me this at a reading in 2006. I think he was self-publishing. I read the first chapter and quite liked it and then got distracted. This book is now so far down the list I will never reach it. If only I had stayed with it, I might have loved it, given a rave quote for the cover, and helped it become a national bestseller, thus changing Dave’s life forever. Although probably not, since I raved about Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories, and did that become a bestseller? Shockingly, no. That’s out in paperback now, by the way. If you respect me at all, you’ll go buy it.

  • Raga Six” by Frank Laura. Frank is my media escort in San Francisco. He gave me this book in 2006 and I hadn’t gotten to it by the time I went back there a year later. I wasn’t sure which was worse: to admit this, or to say nothing and have him think I hated it. I went with saying nothing.

  • Pendulum” by Nathan Provence. Pretty sure this is another self-published book given to me by an enterprising author who came up to me at a reading, although I’m not sure which year. By now it has been crushed for so long under the weight of other books that all its pages have fused together.

  • The one I’m actually reading is “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil” by George Saunders. I’d never heard of this book or the author before, but I saw it in a bookstore last week and liked the first page. I started reading it because my wrists were aching from attempting Phineas Poe. That’s my system, you see: last in, first out. It makes no logical sense, but has the advantage of being easy. I use the same system for my email. Anyway, I’m really loving this book so far. It’s fantastic. So if you made it this far, there you go: that’s a little helpful.

By the way, in the course of writing this review, I moved the books to see what was on the bottom, and the pile fell on me. I nearly died.


This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Dan (#3126)

Location: New York City-ish
Quote: "The main thing about Van Gogh…is that he painted pictures that astonished him with their importance, even though nobody else thought they were worth a damn. --Kilgore Trout"
Posted: 4436 days ago

"Life of Pi" is brilliant. It's an adventure tale about a kid and a tiger in a boat. No sex, you're right, but there is the constant threat of death by tiger's claw, starvation, sharks, etc. Which is something.

Jennifer M. Dambeck (#3061)

Location: NJ, USA
Quote: "Rock on"
Posted: 4436 days ago

One should never be able to boast of having read every book one owns - actually that sounds like on of the rings of Hell to me. Imagine not being able to sleep and EVERY book you can lay your hands on is one you've read?

The next lower level would be being trapped with books you've read that are most popular with 2 year olds, all respect to Maisy and "Goodnight Moon" but wouldn't THAT drive you over the edge in short order?

Machine Man subscriber Alex (#237)

Location: London, England
Quote: "We're today's scrambled creatures, locked in tomorrow's double feature (Bowie)"
Posted: 4436 days ago

Hmmm, never liked "Life of Pi" myself. It's a good (too) well marketed book for insomniacs methinks though some would disagree with me.

Stephanie (#2098)

Location: United States
Quote: "Going crazy. Care to join me?"
Posted: 4436 days ago

Hmmm.....being crushed to death by a pile of books, isn't that every author's dream?

Not that you asked for is, my recommendation for the twoish category, Tails. It is a books about, tails. Fascinating read; the thrilling beginning including tails, the entrancing d'enouement incorporated tails, and the stunning conclusion? tails.

Jak (#2464)

Quote: "The Straight-Jacket makes it hard to type."
Posted: 4436 days ago

I can see it now:

Author Max Barry, age 34, died today after being bludgeoned to death by a number of competing novels. He is survived by his wife and one daughter.

Colette (#324)

Location: Houston, Texas, USA
Quote: ""The good Earth — we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy" -- Kurt Vonnegut"
Posted: 4436 days ago

I really liked "Life of Pi" when I had to read it for class. The twist at the end is totally worth slogging through all the symbolism and character building in the first 7/8ths of the book.

I have a copy of "Third Class Superhero" too. I haven't read it either. I actually haven't read most of my books. Mostly because I keep adding to the collection faster than I can read my way through it.

Adam Czarnecki (#3160)

Location: Michigan, USA
Posted: 4436 days ago

"Life of Pi" is one of my all time favourites. Move that one to the top of the stack.

James W. G. Ford (#1437)

Location: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Quote: "Never allow yourself to be limited by tradition. If we all did that, we'd still live in caves."
Posted: 4436 days ago

"The Life of Pi" is a great book. Yann used to hang out at the library by my house all the time. He's kinda creepy, but an awesome writer.

Machine Man subscriber SRD (#2889)

Location: Ogden, Utah
Posted: 4436 days ago

Don't feel bad. I have a lot of books laying around that I need to read too. The problem is, I don't have an excuse for not reading them. I'm just lazy.

Maureen Ryan (#2265)

Location: East Cleveland, OH
Quote: "Truth is just an excuse for a lack of imagination"
Posted: 4436 days ago

Maureen's Awfully Unhelpful Book Review (not infringing on the copyrigt of "Max’s Spectacularly Unhelpful Book Review, or: My 7,000 Pages of Shame"

Here's what's in my stack:

"Rant" Chuck Palahniuk. Reading it now, but set it aside for a couple of weeks, and forgot that I owned it.

"Island of the Sequined Nuns" by Christopher Moore. Has to be my next book, as it's a loan from a friend. I really liked "A Dirty Job" and she swears there are no vampires in this one either. I really hate vampires.

"Bushworld" by Maureen Dowd. Another loan, from a friend last November. I'm always out to support a Maureen (as long as her book is a loan and not a purchse).

"Dermaphoria" Craig Cleavenger. I have to admit, not really getting into this one. I had to special order it at the bookstore, so maybe it just didn't live up to the anticipation?

"Bubbles Ablaze" by Sarah Strohmeyer. I do love this for pure mindless fine. Got it through a book trade website, though can't remember the name of the website right now. Just haven't read it yet, will probably only take an hour or two.

"Saving Fish from Drowing" by Amy Tan. Seemed like a good idea when I bought it, but can't seem to get passed 1/3 of the way in.

"Devil in the Details" by Jennifer Traig. I have no idea why I thought a memoir about Obsessive Compulsive disorder wouldn't annoy me. From the bookmark, I can see that it annoyed me about 50 pages in.

"How the Irish Saved Civilization" If they already saved it, I don't really have to finish the book right away, right?

"Avoiding Prison and othe Noble Vacation Goals" by Wendy Dale. I love funny travel books, and that's what I thought this was. But, about halfway through, I realized that it was actually, an "I'm-better-than-all-the-people-who-live-in-a-house" book. So, that on is actually in the worse shape, because I really didn't like her.

JB (#2465)

Location: Southern Illinoise
Quote: "I love you so much, now let's get something to eat."
Posted: 4435 days ago

Quick question. I hope, a practical one:

What's a good place to discover new, lesser known books?

There is the library of course. Strangely enough, I live in a spot that makes the library very expensive. Like, really expensive.

Where do you all go?

I'd be nice to be able to attend a writers' festival. Those are hard to get to, for most of us.

Colm O'Brien (#2140)

Location: Ireland
Posted: 4435 days ago

George Saunders is very, very, very good. I found him in the American imports section of my almost-local Waterstone's, which is one hell of a section.

Machine Man subscriber Dirty Davey (#2170)

Location: Carrboro, NC
Posted: 4435 days ago

Of all the strange ways to encounter a familiar name. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek taught a few weeks of my introductory psychology class in college, (mumble) years ago.

Andrew Riley (#1970)

Location: Parker, Colorado, USA
Quote: "Predictions are difficult, especially about the future."
Posted: 4435 days ago

My problem is that every time I am ready for a new book, I get these sinister urges to re-read books that I love. <a href="">Geek Love</a><img src="" width="1" height="1" border="0" alt="" style="border:none !important; margin:0px !important;" /> is the one that I can't stop reading again and again. I have a feeling that Syrup is going to be one of those books too.

Andrew Riley (#1970)

Location: Parker, Colorado, USA
Quote: "Predictions are difficult, especially about the future."
Posted: 4435 days ago

Er, so much for linking it.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.

jessica (#3063)

Location: austin, tx
Quote: "You can't start a fire worrying about your little world falling apart."
Posted: 4434 days ago

Death by books...oh, the irony of it all! I am going to agree with the peeps above and say that I think that "Life of Pi" is a fantastic book that must be moved to the top. May I suggest another book to read? Try "House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros. It was the first book I read that lead me down the path of Chicano literature. I think you might enjoy it?!

Maureen Ryan (#2265)

Location: East Cleveland, OH
Quote: "Truth is just an excuse for a lack of imagination"
Posted: 4434 days ago

Life of Pi is always one that I recommend to people, but so is House of Leaves. Very freaky-weird, GOOD book. I've never actually physically lost my way in a book before, but trust me, this is way worth it!

Melissa Carroll (#3177)

Location: North Carolina, USA
Posted: 4434 days ago

I have found a couple of things that work well together when looking for new books and authors. The Literature Map can be a wonderful resource. I'll keep it open in one window and Amazon or another site with reader reviews and descriptions sites open in another. Some authors (including Max Barry) openly discuss authors that they like. I would never have noticed The Gun Seller on my own. I have, but haven't read yet, Apathy and other small victories. I picked it up, but it is currently in my husband's possession. What I saw, I liked.

Machine Man subscriber Joe M. (#3183)

Location: Texas
Quote: "Grooviness is essential"
Posted: 4434 days ago

I enjoyed "Life of Pi." Just don't take it too seriously, and you'll have fun.

How about something of a completely different style? Try "All the Pretty Horses," by Cormac McCarthy or his latest, "The Road."

Joseph (#1867)

Location: USA
Posted: 4434 days ago

I think the humour that the publisher was referring to about "The Art of the Funerary Violin" is that the entire book is contrived, but the author managed to get it published by making it look authentic. That being said, I don't know how actually funny it would be to read a fake history book.

Roger Thornhill (#3184)

Quote: ""Have you ever had a supernatural experience?" "Yeah, I woke up this morning.""
Posted: 4434 days ago

"Reign of Phil" is great, but isn't even Saunder's best. Try either "Pastoralia" or "In Persuasion Nation". Both are short story collections, and both are terrific (like read over and over again terrific), but "Persuasion Nation" is probably closest to your work. "In Persuasion Nation" and "Jennifer Government" have a lot in common, actually.


Jessa (#1787)

Posted: 4434 days ago

That's nothing. I have at least four piles like that sitting around my apartment. I would finish reading them all, but Phineas Poe keeps finding his way back to the top of the pile. Read it! It's amazing.

Machine Man subscriber Toby O (#2900)

Location: Sydney
Quote: "You can't sell your soul to the devil if he's not buying"
Posted: 4433 days ago

I would tend to agree with Jennifer M. Dambeck, that it's good to have books to read ready to go.

To everyone who has something to say about LOP (life of pi) I read it just after the hype peaked and it was pretty ok, but nothing to soapbox over, I'd put it above 'The Island' and below 'Shantaram' and well below anything by Rushdie, the only PsOR of which I could think.

Right now for all who are interested, Jane Jacobs is sounding doldrums of doom to me in 'Dark Age Ahead' and let me tell you it's great, not in a televangelist way, but in a "I'm old now and let me tell you a thing or two; I'm also a great writer and thinker" way.

Machine Man subscriber Roger (#1653)

Posted: 4433 days ago

Hey Max, have you ever read "Akira"?

Yenzo (#829)

Location: Secret underwater pyramid base in the Pacific
Quote: "In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe (Carl Sagan)"
Posted: 4431 days ago

As a fellow member of the Clevenger Fan Minority, I hereby advise you to read the Phineas Poe trilogy. Like, right now. Especially since you could probably use a good distraction from work right now. And because the books are just so frickin amazing.

Oh, and never mind the wrist pain. It will only enhance the reading experience.

John Reynolds (#2534)

Location: New York, USA
Posted: 4428 days ago

Life of Pi was alright, but you have to take into account that I read it for summer reading in high school, and was forced to read it in one day because i put it off until the end of the summer, so that too might be unhelpful. I have a pile of books almost this big sitting in my room (a few of which are from your lists of suggested reads, which hasn't let me down yet). Also I thought it was funny that I actually discovered you from the back of Apathy and other small victories - which i picked up at random one day - and not the other way around.

towr (#1914)

Location: Netherlands
Posted: 4427 days ago

I just happened to have ordered "Apathy and Other Small Victories" a few days ago. Maybe once I'm rich I'll stop waiting for paperback versions and buy the ludicrously priced first edition hardbacks..

Adam (#580)

Location: Hotel Lobbies (with Winona Ryder)
Quote: "I want to be famous. Really famous."
Posted: 4426 days ago

I must third the motion for the Phineas Poe trilogy--KISS ME, JUDAS and HELL'S HALF ACRE (the first and third novels, respectively) are fantastic!

(You can skip over PENNY DREADFUL. Unless, of course, you were a big D&D geek in grade school. In which case, you'll probably want plenty of tissue handy.)

Spencer (#2936)

Location: BYU
Quote: "I'm an X, Y-ing your Z!"
Posted: 4411 days ago

I want your opinion of the Book of Mormon.

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