Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Harper Lee, April 28, 1926 – February 19, 2016

February 19, 2016

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdAunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that required pants. Aunt Alexandra’s vision of my deportment involved playing with small stoves, tea sets, and wearing the Add-A-Pearl necklace she gave me when I was born; furthermore, I should be a ray of sunshine in my father’s lonely life. I suggested that one could be a ray of sunshine in pants just as well, but Aunty said that one had to behave like a sunbeam, that I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year. She hurt my feelings and set my teeth permanently on edge, but when I asked Atticus about it, he said there were already enough sunbeams in the family and to go about my business, he didn’t mind me much the way I was.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

(Thank you for everything.)

BOOK: Ginny Gall by Charlie Smith (2016)

February 3, 2016

ginnygallThis is only the second Charlie Smith novel I’ve read (though I’ve also read a couple of books of his poetry — side note: amazing), and, honestly, I don’t think I can read another one.

The first time, after I finished Three Delays, I couldn’t pick up another work of fiction for six months. I couldn’t stand reading a single word of anything; every word, every idea paled so miserably by comparison.

I thought surely that was a fluke — c’mon, that wouldn’t happen again. I’m a reader! I love to read! I read all the time! Then his publisher sent me a copy of his new novel, Ginny Gall (out later this month), and, guess what: I haven’t read so much as a cereal box since I finished it three weeks ago.

Ruined by genius. I am plagued.

This novel is set in the 1920s, the Jim Crow era in the U.S., when abject cruelty was the protocol of the day. It’s about a little 5 year-old black boy named Delvin Walker whose mother, a prostitute, is forced to flee for her life after being accused of killing a white man. The story opens there, and then we are slowly, richly walked through Delvin’s next two decades of life, as he meets and is mentored by a series of older African American men with much wisdom but about as little luck, rides the rails, falls in love, lusts for life.

Delvin is brilliant thinker, like the author who created him, and a lover of both reading and writing. He carries around a notebook, into which he jots breathtakingly evocative notes on both his internal and external scenery. Eventually, Delvin is falsely accused of the sexual assault of a white woman, and the latter portion of the novel involves his time in prison, where he is brutally sexually assaulted himself, and his eventual escape and return home.

This is a long novel, and if it had been written by someone lesser, it would’ve been insufferably so.  I often pass by novels this long, to be honest, because a good 4 times out of 5, I spend most of my time reading them thinking, “What up, editor?” But Ginny Gall wasn’t written by someone lesser; it was written by Charlie Smith. And that means every individual word is a poem, right down to the pronouns, the lowercase letters that ought to be uppercase, the single adjective in front of a singular noun. There was no point in this novel where I caught myself wanting to speed up, antsy to move to something else. In fact, I did the opposite: I slowed way down, I read every word, some of them more than once. I jotted notes in the margins. I underlined. I dog-eared. I meant to share it with someone else, then found I couldn’t bear to lay myself that wide.

Someday, I will read it again and make fun of myself for finding so moving at least half of what I found so moving.

(I can’t wait.)

“The singular occasion of reprimand and the sorrow it uncovered and the moment of silence it revealed. . .”

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BOOK: The Uses of the Body by Deborah Landau (2015)

January 12, 2016

usesofbodyI read a lot of poetry, but rarely review collections here, partly because I tend to dip in and out, rather than sit down and read them cover to cover, and partly because it can be hard for me to characterize a collection of poetry in a way that seems useful or satisfying.

Aside from the word “astounding,” I often find it difficult to explain why something resonated with me, and without a theme or plot, something many collections lack, I’m not sure what else to say.

In the case of this book, though, not only can I apply the word “astounding,” but I can also describe both the collection and why it got to me. The Uses of the Body tells the story of a marriage, from wedding to childbirth, from stumblings to “Borderless, and the open days go on –.”

It’s a short collection, but every line packs a wallop, and that’s despite the fact a good chunk of them involve motherhood, something I have no personal experience with (my grief and her joy collided spectacularly somewhere around page 35; I’m pretty sure the whole neighborhood could feel it).

The rest, however, I know very well: aging, loss, romance ebb and romance flow, ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (RIP, Starman). Astounding is certainly what it is. You may wish to pick this book up. While you’re deciding, I will leave you with this:

One summer there was no girl left in me.
It gradually became clear.
It suddenly became.

In the pool, I was more heavy than light.
Pockmarked and flabby in a floppy hat.

What will my body be
when parked all night in the earth?

Midsummer.
Breathe in. Breathe out.

I am not on the oxygen tank.
Twice a week we have sex.

The lithe girls poolside I see them
at their weddings I see them with babies on their hips
thickening I see them middle-aged.

I can’t see past the point where I am.
Like you, I’m just passing through.

[POETRY]

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BOOK: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (2015)

January 3, 2016

deadwakeOn May 1, 1915, the Lusitania, at that time the world’s largest passenger ship, set sail from New York, headed for Liverpool. Of the 1,959 passengers who went to sea with her, only 761 would ever feel land under their feet again. On May 7, as most of us probably remember from about two sentences in a history book in high school, the Lusitania was struck and sunk by a single torpedo from a German U-boat — an important incident, as it marked the moment the Germans changed the protocols of war (from”Hey, don’t sink civilians, you jerks,” to “Sink whomever you want; it’s a goddamn war”), which, along with the fact 123 American passengers died, is what finally got the U.S. to engage.

Erik Larson has written two of my favorite non-fiction books of all time: Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City.  In both those books, he employed a similar narrative device: the weaving of a fascinating historical story (the invention of the wireless for the first, the Chicago World’s Fair for the second) with a crime story about a super-creepy sociopath. Larson’s last book, In the Garden of Beasts, veered from that pattern, and, in my opinion, it suffered from it.  While still an interesting story, there wasn’t anything terribly compelling or unique about it.  I was disappointed.

When I heard he was about to release a new book, this time about the Lusitania, I was hopeful we might be in for a return to form.  After all, the sociopath’s story line here was pretty clear: Walther Schweiger, the notorious captain of U-20: the man who sank a ship packed with children, families, artists, writers, and other civilians headed to England for business or pleasure.

Unfortunately, this book ended up being disappointing overall as well. What the hell is going on over there, Mr. Larson?

The story actually weaves together four stories: the stories of the passengers/crew of both ships (Lusitania, U-20), the story of the British Admiralty, and the story of Woodrow Wilson’s budding romance, by far the least relevant and most distracting element of the book (mostly all that treacly tangential confection did was make me wonder if we really should’ve let a guy that mopily lovesick make such important decisions about things like war; and I’m pretty sure the answer is “no”). I can’t even be bothered to say anything more about that entire subplot, it was so out of place in this narrative. What a slog.

More problematic, though, is that most of the passages set on the Lusitania were dry and drab, overloaded with tedious details about what people were wearing — and I mean everything they were wearing, from their hats to their shoes, as though he’d found their luggage inventory lists and thought, what the heck, might as well throw those in too — as well as how bored they were. Right about the time Larson writes, “The usual shipboard tedium began to set in,” I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with him.

Though the book tells the stories of some interesting “lost” faces of history, like Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat and pioneering female architect Theodate Pope, since he never sits with a single passenger long enough to let us truly get to know them, it’s hard to build any kind of emotional connection to anyone on board, or to the passengers as a whole.  When the ship goes down, it’s terrible, it’s horrible, it’s tragic — but what it isn’t is moving. And that, I would argue, is more Larson’s fault than mine.

THAT SAID. The other two story lines in this book are utterly gripping and, I would argue, make the whole thing worth a read even if you have to skim the other sections to get yourself to the end.

The first section of interest is: every single second set on that U-boat, where life is described in riveting detail: the stifling heat on board, particularly when the ship was submerged; the “basal reek” of 36 unwashed men wearing leather uniforms that didn’t breathe; the part where the toilets exploded if you flushed them while the ship was underwater (a prank often pulled on n00bs, resulting in “the scent of a cholera hospital”);  the dogs and puppies Captain Schweiger had a soft spot for; that time they sink a ship loaded with horses and Schweiger describes watching one of them fight to swim, unable to do anything to help it as it kicked and thrashed about in the water, eventually throwing itself onto one of the life boats, with predictably disastrous results.

These passages are brilliant and they’re among the most engaging things I’ve read all year, packed with the Larson’s clean, transportive writing and a degree of detail that reflects what must have been a veritable shit-ton, pardon my English, of research. Unlike the passengers on the Lusi, Schweiger and his men become real people, putting the reader in the uncomfortable position of kind of liking them.  I haven’t felt myself so conflicted by my feelings by a bunch of asshole Nazis since Das Boot.

The other part worth taking a look at — and something I’m now really interested in reading more about — is the controversy described regarding the role of the British Admiralty in the sinking of the Lusitania. The Admiralty — specifically the intelligence group they called “Room 40” — had gotten their hands on a German code book, and were busily decoding messages when they started to encounter signs that a passenger ship flying a British flag was in danger of being targeted. They knew all about Schweiger (were, in fact, decoding his messages too), and they knew exactly where both U-20 and the Lusitania were.  The connection was pretty clear. The risk was pretty obvious.

Yet — they said nothing.

Why?  Well, Larson has two theories, one of which he clearly supports more than the other.  It was either because: 1) they were afraid that alerting the Lusitania would reveal to the Germans they had one of their code books (which would make the Germans, then, change up the code book; fair enough, I suppose, though 1,198 passengers and crew might beg to differ), or, 2), as Larson appears to believe, they actually wanted U-20 to go ahead and sink the Lusi, because they knew it would be the thing that, at long last, pulled the U.S. into the war.

Larson offers a lot of evidence supporting that latter theory (though, I should note, he doesn’t quite outright say, “This was all Churchill’s doing!”), much of it’s pretty compelling, and all of it was news to me.

And so, for the sake of this section and the sections on board the U-20 alone, at least for those of you intrigued by history and/or fascinated by wartime conspiracy theories, this book is worth picking up. Trust me, though, when I tell you you can just breeze yourselves right through all the parts set on board the Lusi (though, I did find Theodate Pope’s story interesting, so watch for her name) and everything about Wilson’s coup de foudre. You won’t be missing much worth catching, I’m afraid, and it’s mostly just going to get in your way.

Here’s hoping Larson returns, in his next book, to the kind of storytelling he does best (or, at least: better).  I’m still in, though I’ll be wary.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (2015)

May 30, 2015

ronsonJon Ronson, a British writer probably best known for his book-turned-Clooney-film The Men Who Stare at Goats, is an expert at examining human behavior ranging from the weird to the downright disturbed. His latest work, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, seems like the perfect Ronson topic: a book looking at the dumb crap people do on the Internet, followed by the mean crap people so often do in response.

Using several very famous social-media-based public shamings as examples, Ronson sets out to explore the psychology and evolution of mankind’s lust for ruining the lives of others over even the slightest of transgressions.  However, while I found the individual examples fascinating, ultimately, this book just didn’t hit the right notes for me. Ronson spends a lot of his time expressing a kind of perpetual shock over the capacity of humans for irrational rage (though I should note here that I think this “perpetual shock” sensation was heightened by the fact I was listening to him read his own words to me in audiobook format; he definitely has a flare for the dramatic as a narrator). What he doesn’t really manage to do is take a goodly-sized step back from his emotional response to really delve into the various forces at work. The ultimate effect of this was, for me, anyway, to feel like I was being relayed a whole bunch of super-juicy gossip, without much in the way of exploration of what was driving each of the relevant parties to act/react the way they were.

The case studies described range from acts of thoughtlessness or carelessness (thoughtless tweet, careless photograph) to acts of outright, intentional deceit (two lying writers).  But while I was, for the most part, happily along for the ride, there was one story where Ronson’s reaction made me realize just how much of what was truly going on he was completely missing.

Specifically, I started to notice how oblivious he was to the role gender so clearly plays in these kinds of social media fueled public shamings, as evidenced by his chapter about Adria Richards, a story I had been following with great interest in the media when it first broke in 2013. That year, Richards overheard two guys at a tech conference making inappropriate jokes  (about computer “dongles,” admittedly a term ripe for offensive jesting).  Upset by their comments, she turned around and snapped a picture of them, which she then posted on social media.

In response to the hue and cry almost instantly evoked by the photo, one of the men was fired; not long after that, so was Adria. The difference?  The man was fired for making sex jokes at a professional conference. Richards was fired because her act incurred the wrath of a huge swath of others in the tech community, who then retaliated by hammering her company’s web site until it crashed. Another difference?  The man fairly quickly got another job (ironically, at a tech organization that employs no women, he admits to Ronson).  Richards, on the other hand, as with the other women profiled in this book (including Justine Sacco of the badly-thought-out tweet and Lindsay Rice of the badly thought-out Facebook photo), was subjected to prolonged, vicious, and violent death and rape threats, and, as of the time her chapter was written, still had not been able to find another job, largely because any potential employer who plopped her name into a Google search very quickly found a mass of hatefulness and degradation and was (understandably) unnerved.

When Adria tried to explain to Ronson that part of what made her take and share the photo was a pervasive concern for her safety at the conference driven by the overall culture of misogyny around her, she cited a line attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.”  Ronson’s response, and this is where I realized just how little he actually understood about any of this, was: “People might consider that an overblown thing to say.”

Ronson seemed to be suggesting, in other words, that it was unreasonable for a woman to feel as though her safety might be in danger at a professional tech conference. Richards was clearly overreacting. It was a sort of, “Hey, lady, let’s not get all hysterical here, now.” Which whatever, sure, fine, man. I mean, it’s not like this, this, this, this, or, for the love of god, THIS has ever happened.  Sigh, argh, sigh again. Argh once more.

None of this is to suggest Ronson’s central point isn’t valid (nutshell: we shouldn’t destroy someone’s life when they make a mistake), or to suggest this isn’t a highly readable, very thought-provoking book — all these things are true.  While I confess I don’t feel too badly when people call others out on social media for saying things without thinking about their impact on others — this is still all too common in our society, this belief that what you say on social media doesn’t count, shouldn’t matter, can’t harm, and I disagree with anyone who suggests it’s better to let that stuff go by without mention when it happens — it’s obviously outrageous how far those kinds of interactions can, and often do, end up going.  Hatefulness, life-ruination, shame, outings, worse — it’s vile and inexcusable.  Ronson’s exploration toward the end of the book of the various ways we’re inventing to deal with this issue were fascinating too (examples: the European “Right to be Forgotten” law and PR companies you can hire to help bury negative content deep down in search results, though that kind of thing can certainly backfire too).

Ultimately, however, I felt frustrated Ronson seemed more interested in sharing the gossipy details than he did in truly trying to analyze the harder questions at play here, and, frankly, he just seemed utterly incapable of even recognizing the gender-related ones.  Maybe that’s an unfair criticism — can men truly comprehend the things women are still up against in modern society?  Maybe they can’t. But what they can do — and should do, I would argue — is at least try (say, by asking a follow-up question instead of merely shutting the conversation down with a response that can only have been intended to make the interviewee doubt her own perceptions).

In the face of all this, it was hard for me not to leave this book wondering how much more powerful it could’ve been in the hands of someone a little more “worldly,” shall we say — time spent on astonishment redirected, instead, to more thoughtful analysis.  That said, this is still a very important, very eye-opening book, and well worth a read (or listen) to anyone interested in social media and modern society.

Recommended (with caveats)!

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (2011)

March 14, 2015

readyplayeroneMan, it has been a long time since I’ve had this much fun reading a novel. For some reason, over the last 6 months or so, I’ve had a hellova time getting into any fiction book I’ve picked up. I’ve started and discarded at least a dozen, even making it about 85% of the way through the new Sarah Waters novel, The Paying Guests, before deciding I just didn’t care enough to want to keep going.

When I picked this one up a week or so ago, however, I was sucked in almost immediately.  Which is funny because it’s not particularly well-written, and if it weren’t for the heavy 80s references, I’d say it’s more a YA novel than a grown-up one (YAs aren’t old enough to get the jokes, I’d wager).  But a book doesn’t have to be a brilliant work of creative writing to be incredibly entertaining.  And that’s what this book is in a nutshell: incredibly entertaining.

It’s set in the year 2044, and the star of the story is high school senior named Wade Watts. The Earth has practically been destroyed — cautionary tale about fossil fuels — and as electrical grid after electrical grid has fallen, people have flocked to the cities, living in stacked towers of mobile homes where they can wire themselves together for limited power and utilities.

The vast majority of mankind has begun to spend most of their hours awake logged into a virtual reality world called The Oasis — sort of like Second Life, only cool (sorry, Second Life).  The creator of The Oasis, a mega-billionnaire with a heart of gold named Halliday, recently died and, in his will, announced to the planet a complex scavenger hunt of sorts he left behind in the code.  Figure out the clues, solve yourself to the end of the puzzle, and you inherit everything he owned, including The Oasis itself. Thing is, in order to fulfill this quest, you have to be an expert in everything Halliday loved — almost all of it 80s computer, gaming, or pop culture-related.

As the novel opens, we’re a couple of years into the challenge and nobody has managed to solve the first clue.  That is, until now.  Wade, who spent most of his earlier teenage years devouring everything from the 80s he could lay his hands on, is the first to unlock the first of three magical “gates,” reigniting the contest.  Meanwhile, a nasty mega-corporation, Innovative Online Industries, is on the scene, stocked with hundreds of employees, each trained into expert-dom on a single 80s-related game, TV show, film, or other element. Using complex computer systems, IOI is able to call on the nerdy superpowers of their entire workforce at any moment through a single avatar, and has announced to the other gamers that if they win, they will take over The Oasis and do whatever with it they damn well please.

Can Wade, and the other individual gamers he ends up befriending, solve the clues and get to the end before IOI?  Or will they be destroyed by the greed of an evil corporation determined to use its powers for evil?

It’s not much of a plot, I suppose, and the game itself is a little on the cheesy side at times.  But the characters are a delight and the 80s references were a total blast.  Lots of stuff I’d forgotten about and was so happy to recall, as well as, I’m sure, a ton of references, especially related to gaming, that went riiiiight over my head.

If you’ve been looking for a light read and you’re on the nerdy side, this is a book you should give a shot.  And if you have any teenagers who like this kind of stuff, I especially highly recommend it to them because, again, it really did seem better suited, writing-wise, to a YA audience (even if they don’t get all the references, they’ll get enough to be able to follow along, and will probably be charmed by some of the old-school tech). Highly, highly recommended!  Can’t wait to see what this author puts out next (I’ve read his next book is due out soon, and also rumors this one is being made into a movie as well, by the way)!

[SCIENCE FICTION]

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BOOK: On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss (2014)

February 21, 2015

onimmunityEula Biss gave birth to her first child right as the H1N1 flu epidemic was freaking out the globe. As many new mothers do, she took to the Internet to try to learn more about the risk of the flu versus the risk of the flu vaccine for her newborn baby.  The information she found there was conflicting, confusing, and ultimately not all that helpful at resolving her myriad questions (welcome to my world as a research librarian, Ms. Biss!).

Ultimately, she erred on what she decided was the side of caution and ended up going along with her doctor’s recommendation to vaccinate her child (for the flu and everything else).  But that sense of overwhelming responsibility, confusion, and fear led her to rethink that choice more than once over the following years, as vaccines after vaccines were pumped into her child’s veins.

This book is what came out of her quest to get to the bottom of the truth about vaccine safety (i.e., that vaccines are vital and everybody who can get them should), and it’s a fascinating journey to take at her side.  Into this well thought-out combination of science and emotion, Biss mixes in a healthy dose of history, analysis of evolving cultural norms (changing notions of “filth” and “purity,” for example), a look at pop culture’s role (vampires, anyone?), and ideas taken from both literature and philosophy as well.

The trip is a wild ride all over the map, and as engrossing as it is, I confess I felt Biss’s writing wasn’t always up to the task.  At times, the book gets a bit bogged down by a tangent that isn’t quite worthy of the boggage, and begins to feel more than a little unfocused.

Overall, however, I greatly enjoyed her perspective on this.  There’s an awful lot of anger on both sides of the vaccine “debate” these days, and one of the things that puzzles me the most about that is the way in which it’s often coming from parents against other parents.  This despite the fact that parents on both sides of the issue are acting out of identical, powerful, and innate motivations — the goal of protecting their children from harm.

This exploration of a real mother’s real fears in trying to figure out the best thing to do for her own child adds a level of humanity, empathy, and understanding to a conversation I have long felt, as a health educator of sorts myself, has been sorely lacking in all those elements. The result is a refreshingly compassionate approach to the subject, and one far more likely to make a difference to parents who are still wary of vaccinating than the insults and rage I so often see thrashing about on social media whenever the topic comes up.  You can’t get someone to change their mind by calling them an “idiot,” especially when their chief motivation is fear. What you can do is try to approach them from a mutual desire to keep their child safe from harm, and to educate them patiently but persistently from that perspective instead.

Highly recommended to people on both sides of the conversation; this is a book I wish more people would read.

[NON-FICTION]

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BOOK: Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox (2014)

December 13, 2014

doesnotlovI picked this book up on a whim while I was at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon a few weeks ago — I’d never heard of it, but was intrigued both by the look of the cover and the blurb on the back, which described it as a story about “domestic terrorism” and an “alternate reality Indianapolis overrun by Big Pharma.”

Those are both phrases I won’t be using again in this review, because, as it turns out, they’re the smallest, least interesting elements of the entire book. I can’t even remember, only a few weeks later, what role Big Pharma played in the first place. I have a vague notion it was some sort of blurry commentary about anti-depressants, but I couldn’t tell you anything more than that, and even that is a suspect recollection.

Instead, this is really a novel about a young couple struggling to overcome loss and not doing a very good job of it.  As the story opens, Viola and Robert are at the doctor’s office, where they are being told Viola has just lost another baby.  They’ve been trying to conceive for a while, and she’s miscarried multiple times.

This latest — this last — loss is the one that finally takes Viola down. It starts with her suddenly overcome with rage over the gentle nature of her husband, who does nothing in response but love and attempt to comfort her.  It’s not your fault, he tells her over and over. Of course it’s not. She tells him her womb has become a grave. Of course it hasn’t, he replies. In bed, he is kind and tender. And no, no, no more, Viola finds herself completely unable to stand even one more second of kind and tender.

In a desperate attempt to feel something — anything — she begins to lash out at him, demanding things she knows he can’t accommodate.  Wanting him to hit her during sex, largely. Wanting him to hurt her the way she feels she deserves to be hurt. He struggles to understand and comply, even watching videos on S&M to try to learn how to do what it is she wants him to do, but he can’t do it.  It’s so far beyond his nature, it’s completely incomprehensible.

In response, she begins a brutally physical relationship with a secret agent who has been monitoring her workplace, a local library.  And here’s where the “domestic terrorism” and “Big Pharma” things  sort of come into play, but only sort of, and with so little intent or weight they mostly feel like an idea the author had for another book he decided not to write, instead trying to roll the loosest version of that concept into this one at the last minute. It doesn’t exactly not fit. But it doesn’t exactly fit, either.

As their relationship starts to come apart at the seams, both Viola and Robert fight to keep it stitched, only managing in the process to tear it apart even more.  Eventually, though, they manage to come to this:

Viola thinks, Okay. Robert thinks, Is that all? Is it as cheap as that? I come back, she comes back, I come back? Viola thinks, Okay. That’s something.

And then they have sex in the kitchen, get dressed, go outside, sip lemonade on the porch, and talk about the weather.

Whether this is a happy ending or an utterly devastating one depends on the way you perceive marriage, I suppose. I could go either way — and I did, about 9,000 times a minute while I read this.

This is the second novel in about five months I’ve read that has so gut-punched me, so painfully, so to-the-core, I could hardly breathe while I read it. (The other one, incidentally, was Three Delays by Charlie Smith.) For very different reasons — and for all the same ones. Viola’s sense of betrayal from her own body, her compounding losses, and her resultant rage at both herself and anybody who dares to care about her — these were all things I related to on such a deeply personal, deeply indelible way I kept flipping to the front cover to remind myself: No, I did not write this and forget I’d done it. In fact, a MAN wrote this. A man wrote it. How is that even possible? That a man could write this? Every other line in this book made my heart crack and pop like a bum knee haunted by an old injury.  I kept thinking as I read, “I should put this down.”  And then I kept thinking, “I never want to read anything that doesn’t make me feel exactly like this ever again.”

Highly, highly recommended, though I have a feeling your mileage is going to vary dramatically. God, to write a thing like this someday — a thing that has this kind of impact on even one human being. Living the dream, Mr. James Tadd Adcox. Living it.

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (2006)

November 16, 2014

peoplepaperThis fascinating, strange debut novel tells the story of a man named Federico de la Fe, a Mexican gent who wages a war against the planet Saturn as a way to combat his crushing depression. Except, as it turns out, the planet Saturn isn’t actually the planet Saturn.  It’s actually. . . Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.

Abandoned by his wife Merced due to his chronic bed-wetting (we can’t all be winners), Federico discovers by accident the cure for both his sadness and his inappropriate urination: what he calls “burn collecting,” a self-harm technique in which he burns parts of his own body to a sear.  Sometimes he does this while hanging out underneath a giant mechanical turtle that speaks only in binary code and seems to . . .  Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this.

Wanting a change, Federico packs up his young daughter, Little Merced, and moves to California, where he enlists the help of a local gang of flower pickers in a battle against the malevolent influences of Saturn.  Only, as we soon discover, “Saturn” is actually Salvador Plascencia, the author of this novel, and he’s only being this evil in the first place because his heart, just like Federico’s, has recently been viciously broken. (For bed-wetting? He doesn’t say. Let’s go with “yes” for fun.)

Meanwhile, as the war rages on — well, it’s sort of a war, and it’s sort of raging on — Little Merced is slowly being lost to a lime addiction. Limes, I said. The fruit. There’s also a Baby Nostradamus, but he doesn’t seem to be all that much help. Additionally, and somewhat more compellingly, there’s a third Merced that is neither Federico’s wife nor his daughter, but instead a lady made entirely out of paper who is plagued, among other tings, by the terrible fact that every time a man has oral sex with her, his mouth ends up bloodied and raw from the paper cuts.

Wait, hold on a sec — I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to explain this. . .

In case I have failed to make this clear, this is a very strange novel.  I’m not entirely sure it works, to be honest, but it’s so fascinatingly written it’s hard to put it down even while you’re scratching your head wondering what the hell the author is trying to accomplish.  Narrators come and go, sometimes getting whole chapters, sometimes only a few paragraphs in a column next to a series of paragraphs in columns by other characters.  Sometimes, those paragraphs are blacked out — if the narrator has successfully managed to hide their thoughts from Saturn, also known as the author, using sheets of lead. Baby Nostradamus seems especially keen on making that work, and then sort of doesn’t seem keen on anything much at all. Babies: what can I say?

At its heart, this is a novel about sadness and love, and the power of words (“paper”) to either mitigate or exacerbate the agony of both those things. I think that’s what it was about, anyway. Think, for example, about the metaphor of paper cutting up the tongue of a man who only wants to bring pleasure to a woman he loves.  The sharpness, the bloodying impact of words, or of love itself.  Saturn’s girlfriend, Liz, periodically interjects to beg him (the author) not to hurt her with his novel; another character, Smiley, begs Saturn/the author to explain to him his role in the story, only to be disappointed when it turns out the author barely knows he exists.

I don’t exactly know what it all means, and, to be honest, about 3/4ths of the way through, I was kind of over trying to figure it out.  And that right there’s the problem, really:  this is a fascinating novel full of fascinating things, but ultimately, nothing quite compelling enough to turn it into a real powerhouse in the world of magical realism or metafiction. Which is too bad, because it has some engaging ideas and characters , as well as some truly evocative writing. This kind of “tight concept, loose execution” problem isn’t uncommon in first novels, however, and so I have some hope that whatever Plascencia does next will be similar but better.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book and I recommend it to anyone else who enjoys writing that tries to do something a little different. You may end up scratching your head at the end, but I think the journey will make the ultimate tinge of dissatisfaction worth it.

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BOOK: Three Delays by Charlie Smith (2010)

August 30, 2014

threedelaysHave you ever read a book that cut you so deeply, all the way through, both in gutting story and in gasping language, that you can’t read anything else for weeks and weeks on end?  When every book you pick up next is so pale and lifeless by comparison, you can hardly stand it?

You get to the point where you simply have to accept it’s going to be a drought for as long as it takes for it to rain again. Nothing can be done — you read a book that made you feel too much and you won’t be able to read again until either the feeling fades or the world’s most perfect successor falls into your lap.

This is one of those books.

Consider yourself warned.

[FICTION]

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