Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

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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BOOK: Roosevelt’s Beast by Louis Bayard (2014)

July 1, 2014

beastI’m a huge fan of Louis Bayard’s writing and storytelling — two of his novels, in fact, so enthralled me I remember exactly where I was when I finished them (The Pale Blue Eye and The Black Tower).  When I saw he had a new novel out — a fictionalized spin on a true story I had read a non-fiction book about and loved a few years ago (River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard), I thought, man, somebody up there likes me. . .

Or. . . perhaps not so much? I’ll try not to take it personally.

Both books (this one and the non-fiction River of Doubt) are about the trip to the Amazonian jungle Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit took just after Roosevelt lost his bid for reelection in 1913.  Joining up with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, the plan was to explore the headwaters of the Rio da Duvida, which they intended to trace all the way to the Amazon River.  In the real story, Teddy becomes so sick a few weeks into the trip with a mysterious infection and fever he can barely move on his own, forcing Kermit to to care for him day and night — ultimately saving his father’s life.

In Bayard’s fictionalized version, Kermit and Teddy, just beginning to fall ill, get separated from the group and are kidnapped up by a local tribe.  Living with the tribe after being kidnapped herself at an early age is a young woman, the daughter of a missionary, who is the only person able to communicate with the two men.  She translates the tribe’s directives: they’ll be permitted to leave only if they can find and kill the terror-inducing monster who has been brutally attacking and murdering their people.  The tribesmen themselves are too afraid to go after it themselves, but T.R. and Kermit, avid hunters their entire lives, agree right away to the deal, believing the tribe is just a bunch of superstitious fools being spooked by some boring ol’ jaguar. It’ll take them a day to catch and kill it and then they’ll be on their way home — no big. I mean, obviously it’s something like a jaguar, right? There’s no such thing as monsters, for pity’s sake.

Their self-assuredness falters fast, though, when they get their first look at a victim — eviscerated, flayed, and essentially licked clean from the inside out, with not a single track to be found around the body.  It’s as if the creature came down from sky, hovered to kill, then flew off again without a trace. They’ve never seen anything like it before, but promise to fulfill their part of the deal so they can get the hell out of there.

As the two men struggle to figure out what is really going on, a romance between Kermit and the young lady begins to develop, and we also get a very intriguing look inside Kermit’s mind (he’s sort of the narrator, though it’s not a first-person narrative).  This is the part I enjoyed the most about the story — the characters, their insights, and their relationships.  Kermit Roosevelt was an interesting guy, stuck playing second fiddle to the more famous Roosevelts in his life, which, coupled with bad genes, led to a lifetime of crushing depression and alcoholism that ultimately drove him to commit suicide at age 54.  Though this work was fiction, it was clear Bayard had done a lot of research into the two men’s relationship, and I enjoyed the dynamic very much.

The problem: Bayard is famous — to me, anyway — for writing fairly serious fiction featuring historical people or characters and typically a mystery-type plot.  The Black Tower, for example, is about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s son Louis-Charles, as well as the notorious Eugène François Vidocq, career criminal and (ironically) the first director of France’s Sûreté Nationale.  His novel The Pale Blue Eye, another detective story, features a young Edgar Allen Poe as its central sleuth, and his book Mr. Timothy is an exploration of what kind of young man little Tim Cratchit, from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, might have grown into.

[SPOILER ALERT! Stop reading now if you plan to pick this one up!]

For that reason, what I was expecting with this novel was something rooted fairly firmly in reality. Roosevelt’s Beast, however, takes what could have been a rich fish-out-of-water story exploring the superstitions of an Amazonian tribe and the mythos of a famous American family, and turns it into total hokum instead.  Which would’ve been fine if the hokum were interesting, but it was more cheesy and ridiculous than gripping and thought-provoking.  I can see that it was at least partly an attempt to provide an explanation for Kermit’s suicide, but of all the fascinating ways his death could’ve been explored, this is the least fascinating one I can imagine.  Instead of feeling authentic, it mostly just felt ludicrous — a waste of an otherwise interesting character.  And what a weird veering from the norm for Bayard, too. While I’m the first person to offer kudos to an established author trying something new, the new thing still has to earn those kudos by not sucking.  Not earned here.  Not at all.

That said, though the silly plot was a major distraction from the novel’s strengths, there were still many strengths to this novel.  The writing is great, as usual, the characters are great, as usual, and the setting is almost a beast all its own.  Some of the subplots, especially about the young woman’s life with the tribe, were very authentic in feel and expression.  Though I was disappointed overall, I didn’t HATE this novel. I read the whole thing and I was entertained.  My problems were largely problems of expectations, I suspect.  I still very much love Louis Bayard.  I just hope this isn’t the start of a new kind of trend for his writing.  Because, honestly?  I really, really liked the old kind of trend for his writing.

If you’ve never read any Bayard, I’d suggest The Pale Blue Eye as a great starting place, by the way.  Good old fashioned detectin’. Save this one for last, if you get around to it at all.

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BOOK: Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Book 2) by Ransom Riggs (2014)

June 22, 2014

hollowcityThis novel, the sequel to Riggs’ super-creative but slightly underwhelming 2011 novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, was as entertaining as the first book, but unfortunately also as problematic.

The story starts up where Peregrine left off — Miss Peregrine’s home for wayward “peculiars” (children with magical abilities) has just been bombed, and our intrepid heroes, a set of youths ranging in age from baby to teen, are on the run.  Miss Peregrine herself is trapped in bird form, leaving the kids on the loose, running from monsters, with no adult to guide them.

Desperate for help, Jacob, Emma, and the others head out in search for other peculiars who might be able to help them — particularly to help restore Miss Peregrine to her human body before she is stuck as a bird forever.  Their journey takes them through every kind of terrain there is: on trains, on boats, through forests and the Blitzed streets of London, and more, traveling through a range of time loops, encountering a range of characters.

The story in the sequel was more engaging than the one in the original — for me, anyway.  The characters all knew each other this time around (in the first book, Jacob was an outsider coming in, and the focus was mostly on him), which lent itself to deeper explorations of their selves and their relationships.  But the gimmick gave me the same issues; the inspiration for both these novels is a set of old (real) photographs the author has collected over the years in which tricks with light and exposure have resulted in various oddities: a boy with no feet, a girl who appears to be floating, an object dangling in open space suggesting an invisible person at play, that kind of thing. It’s such a great, creative, clever idea — but it’s unfortunately overused to the point of incoherence in both novels. In this one in particular, it didn’t take long before I started to feel like Riggs had begun with a stack of pictures he desperately wanted to work in, but which he increasingly realized didn’t quite fit with the story.  Instead of letting them go, though, he simply had characters appear and disappear out of the blue, serving no real plot purpose, just to provide the excuse to share the nifty pics with his readers.

It reminded me of a writing exercise I used to do in high school where the teacher would give us a list of 10 random words and tell us to write a short story that incorporated them all. Invariably, this results in at least 1 or 2 places, sometimes more, where you introduce a concept you never would’ve put in there had it not been for the requirement to make it work.  This type of exercise never — NEVER! — results in a brilliant piece of writing.  It’s an exercise — it’s not meant to create a final product.

But that’s the part I think Riggs hasn’t quite caught on to.  Great idea, but you have to be incredibly careful with the execution or else what you end up with is a story about a kid named Roger who finds the bones of a dinosaur (which he names a “thesaurus flex”) buried deep in the earth, tucked inside a Styrofoam cup (at least, this is the story I ended up with when I was asked to write a tale that included the words “thesaurus,” “flex,” and “Styrofoam,” among others).

Still, despite the occasional distraction of the gimmick, I enjoyed both these novels and am definitely game for what looks like it’ll be a third (the second certainly sets us up well for a third, anyway). Even if you end up not digging the stories, the photographs themselves are fascinating, making the first one well worth a peek if you haven’t already checked it out.  Sort of recommended?  I guess?  Sure, why not.

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010)

May 20, 2014

reapers

Recently, I read an article somewhere about someone involved in zombie stuff (an author? a scriptwriter? an actor?  God, I’m old and my brain sucks. . .) who said this was, hands-down, his favorite zombie novel of all time.  I Googled it, having never heard of either the title or author, and found numerous other reviews, all raving about the writing, the language, the characters, the atmosphere, the creativity of this book.  So, naturally, I immediately put it on hold at the library, tearing into it (pun intended) the second it arrived.

While I can say I definitely found this novel highly entertaining, and I devoured it (pun intended) in about 24 hours, I’m a little concerned those reviewers were all missing part of their braaaaaaaaains (pun intended).  Not only is the story about as derivative as they come (yawn), but the writing style and the language were kind of clunky, and I had some problems with the main character and elements of story as well.

That main character is Temple, a 15 year-old girl born into the world post-zombie-apocalypse (WWZ, so to speak, happened 10 years before her birth, so we’re 25 years into it by the time the book opens).  What makes that interesting is that it means she has no nostalgia for the way the world once was, giving her a perspective we don’t often see in these kinds of stories.  She had a little brother — at least, she thinks he was her brother — but he’s long gone and she’s been alone for years, drifting from place to place, exploring with no plan or agenda, and dodging and killing “meatskins” as she goes.

Early on in the novel, Temple encounters a small community of survivors and decides to join them, at least for a little while. A little respite from the road.  She gets a nice dinner, some fresh clothes, a bed to sleep in, and she makes a friend right away in an older woman who immediately takes a liking to her.  But that first night, one of the men in the community breaks into her room and tries to assault her.  Temple ends up killing him while fighting him off, and when she tells the woman what happened, the woman packs her up into a car and sends her screeching off into the night, no time to lose.  Because the man had a brother, you see — Moses Todd — and, as Temple herself points out, Southern men mostly “just sit around waiting for somebody to kill their brother so they can get started on some vengeance.”

And thus begins the central story line — Temple on the run from Moses, a man with an obvious conscience who, in fact, takes a strong liking to Temple and even tells her his brother was a worthless human being — yet irrationally seems compelled to kill her anyway (despite saving her life first a number of times). This plot point was one of my biggest problems with the novel, frankly.  It didn’t feel legitimate and it ended up being all too convenient more than once.  Attempts to explain Moses’s behavior are unsatisfying, and more often than not, the conflict felt like a lazy way to keep everybody on the move more than an exploration of whatever emotional or situational complexity might drive a man to kill a girl he didn’t really want to kill, simply because she stabbed his awful brother he didn’t even like in an attempt to protect herself.

As the chase continues on, Temple encounters a few other pockets of survivors, including a family holed up in a mansion and subsisting largely on booze and denial, a mentally challenged man named Maury she kind of adopts, and a group of mutants who have discovered they can shoot themselves up with zombie spinal fluid and . . .  turn themselves into really disgusting subhuman beings (??).  That was another little plot twist I had some issues with — interesting concept, I suppose, but why?  The mutants don’t seem to be benefiting from this behavior in any obvious way — the injections are excruciatingly painful, and then their skin starts to rot and fall off and they’re ugly and smell bad.  Attempts to explain this again fall flat — something to do with religion?  Or family unity?  What?  And just how did they discover this technique in the first place?  Someone had a few too many beers and thought to themselves, “Hey, let’s try shooting ourselves in the back of the skull with zombie spinal fluid!”  Mrrrrrah?

Even more problematic for me, though, were the little things.  Like the fact we’re 25 years out of civilization, yet everybody still has indoor plumbing (complete with running water), electricity, and working gas pumps.  That would be infinitely doable if you were in a small community of survivors and one of you used to be an engineer — but Temple has hot baths and turns on lights everywhere she goes, pretty much.  And she can discard a car and simply pick up another one, finding it still operational even though it may have been sitting around idle for a decade or more.  Just how does that work?

Now add in the fact Temple is uneducated and illiterate, yet talks like a scholar (with a thick and contrived Southern accent, mind you).   “Patina”?  “Convivial”?  What gives?  Again, there’s no attempt to provide an explanation for this — yet there was the perfect opportunity.  There’s a scene in which she thinks back about the man who cared for her as a child, and if the author had had him rattle off a few 25 cent words, I would’ve been satisfied she’d learned them all from him.  But if you’re a loner in the world and you can’t read, you aren’t learning the word “convivial,” I’m sorry.  Not to mention the description a school of fish in a pond as “disco-lit.”  Oh really?  What is this thing you call a “disco”?

Temple’s journey is a journey of redemption, especially after she picks up Maury and flashbacks about her little maybe-brother begin to flit in and out — in that way, it does have some real meat on it (pun intended).  But while I liked the spare writing style generally (authentic grittiness in places, especially since it doesn’t use punctuation), it was definitely clunky and overdone more often than not, and the story is about as been-there-done-that as they come, right down to the mutant family from Wrong Turn showing up there at the end.

It’s a noble attempt to do something different, and again, the main character’s distance from life as the reader knows it was an inspired way to go, but there are just way too many problems with this novel for it to be one I can recommend as the “best zombie novel” ever written.  If that’s really true, then the genre is in desperate need of some new flesh (pun intended).

[FICTION, HORROR, ZOMBIES]

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BOOK: If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous (2010)

May 7, 2014

ifyoufollowme

When I was in the sixth grade, I spent a year living in Iwakuni, Japan (my dad was in the Marine Corps and there’s an air base there), a tiny little town in southern Honshu.  Ever since that incredible experience, which I could talk about for hours, the memories are still so sharp, I’ve loved stories about Japan, especially ones about outsiders — gaijins out of water, so to speak  — who are confronted by the unique, often beautiful and befuddling cultural aspects of that unique country.

I found this novel sitting on the “free paperbacks” shelf at my local public library a while back and snatched it up when I saw it was just such a story, and, man, am I ever glad I did.  Despite the fact it’s got some problems — more on those in a moment — this is a highly entertaining novel, and one that feels extremely authentic too (partly because it’s based on the author’s own experiences).  Even better, it really took me back to that extraordinary year of my youth, and I loved the excuse to reminisce with myself about it.  (Oh, the Hello Kitty.  So much Hello Kitty. SO MUCH HELLO KITTY!)

The protagonist is a 22 year-old American woman named Marina, whose father recently committed suicide.  The emotional whirlwind that triggered makes it impossible for her to stay put, so she and her new girlfriend Carolyn, whom she met in a bereavement support group, decide to apply for jobs teaching English in Japan, each landing gigs (at two different schools) in the tiny village of Shika.

Shika is initially a respite for Marina, as she relaxes into the distance between her new life and the ghost of her father, but as she begins to settle in a bit more, the culture shock starts to take its toll and haunting memories and what-ifs about her dad flood back in.  Turns out, you can’t run away from grief, a lesson Marina is about to learn the hard way.

Complicating things are the radical differences between American life and Japanese life.  First of all, there are the convoluted, impossible-to-decipher “gomi” rules, which have to do with garbage disposal (it’s a tiny island, after all — they don’t go in much for massive land fills over there), rules she can’t seem to get straight. This perpetually ticks off her neighbors, who keep complaining to her boss, who then keeps passive-aggressively writing her uncomfortable Japanglish letters about all her transgressions (he doesn’t want to “do a rude,” but he can’t seem to help himself).

Then there are all the Japanese people Marina works with every day at school — people she struggles to understand less in terms of the language barrier and more in terms of the sociological and psychological cultural constructs in Japan, which are far more foreign to her than Kanji characters ever could be.

Some of the parts of this novel that were a particular delight to me were things I remembered well from living in a small Japanese town myself, including the early morning blast of music coming from the factory down the hill, where the employees would gather outside before the start of the work day to all do calisthenics together, as well as the complexities of grocery shopping, where a failure to pay close attention can result in the regrettable purchase of a cantaloupe.  Did you mean to spend $35 on a melon?  I bet you didn’t.

Outside the pleasure of my own memories, there is also a moving, beautifully-written subplot about a little boy at Marina’s school whose older brother suffers from severe autism and who desperately wants to get away from his family and start a new life somewhere “else.”  The “else” he tries to get to appears to be the afterlife, though it’s not clear the little boy fully understands that (as he’s rocketing down a snowy hill on a sled headed straight for a tree).  The passages in which we watch him tighten his fists and rail against the struggles of his agonizing life — a six year-old boy, mind you — will stay with me for a long time, as will his mother’s terrified embraces every time she catches him as he starts to fall.

I also loved that each chapter opened with a Japanese term and its definition — one that would ultimately end up relating to the part of the story to follow.  One of those terms was “wabi-sabi,” which was not a phrase I’d encountered in Japan, but was definitely a familiar concept.  In the Girl Scout troop I was in that year, we spent an afternoon with a Japanese potter, who told us that, traditionally, Japanese potters would throw away or break pots they made that appeared to be flawless — because imperfection was what made a pot truly beautiful. This concept ends up being a pervasive theme in the novel — the notion of perfect imperfection. It’s a concept I really, really like, and one I don’t think we have over here in the U.S., where we constantly seem to be pushing for improvement in all aspects of our lives, rather than simply embracing our things/ourselves as they are.  A lovely philosophy, that one.  I aim to try to cultivate it.

Speaking of wabi-sabi imperfection, this is not a flawless novel.  In particular, I found the subplot involving Carolyn and Marina’s relationship frustrating.  What starts out as a complex  and intriguing element of the story, a relationship between two people who come together in one of the most painful emotional states there is (grief) and try to shake off that pain using each other primarily as a distraction from it, becomes increasingly unimportant, with Carolyn fading more and more into the background in a haze of jealousy and anger.  Meanwhile, both woman end up falling in love with men — men who have “rescued” them in various ways, both practical and metaphorical.  That was a bit on the disappointing side for me, I confess.  Though, perhaps it’s realistic; what the hell would I know.

Aside from that, though, I found this book engaging and entertaining, and loaned it to my mother the moment I was done, knowing would she would enjoy the triggering of so many memories of our own Japanese life as much as I did.  Anyone who has ever lived in Japan and loved it will find a lot to like here, and anyone looking for a good, simple “summer read” should throw this one in their pile too, I’d say.  Recommended!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Bear by Claire Cameron (2014)

April 19, 2014

thebearThis creative but ultimately ineffective novel begins with our narrator, 5 year-old Anna, happily snuggling up in her tent after a day of canoeing with her family to a small, forested island where they’re planning to camp for the weekend.  Held tight in one arm is her teddy bear Gwen; tucked in a sleeping bag next to her, her baby brother, 2 year-old Stick, obnoxiously snoring away as usual.

While she dozes off to sleep, Anna can smell bacon frying up and hear her parents laughing and talking in soft voices on the other side of the tent flap.  Tempted to pop her head out just to reassure herself everything is as it should be, Anna instead decides to be a “good girl” and stay in bed as told.  She cozies up to Gwen, whose smell she finds reassuring, and takes comfort in the fact “we are 4” (that is, her whole family is there).

Then suddenly the voices change and Anna snaps awake.  Her mother seems angry; her father’s tone drops low and quiet and calm.  Just as Anna starts to sit up to try to listen more closely, though, her dad comes bursting through the tent flap, looking furious (she thinks).  He grabs her and Stick, races outside, throws them both into the family’s oversized Coleman cooler, jams a rock into the corner of the lid to keep it propped open slightly for air — and then turns the latch to lock them in, hissing at them to STAY THERE.

Convinced they’re being punished, though what for, they have no idea, Anna and Stick lie quietly in the cooler for a while — a familiar place from their hours of playing hide-and-seek in it at home and so not immediately alarming to either of them.

But as time passes and she ceases being able to hear her parents, this lengthy time-out starts to seem unfair. Plus, they’re only 2, and Anna wants to be 4 again (this number thing recurs throughout the novel and was, I thought, an adept way to show Anna’s anxiety about being separated from her family).  Then Stick poops his pants — argh!  The stench is overwhelming and Anna wants OUT, so she calls to her parents at last, attracting instead the attention of what appears to her to be a big black dog.  The dog begins sniffing and pawing at the cooler, finally knocking it around so much the latch breaks (luckily, he doesn’t notice and instead goes back to smacking and crunching on what sounds to Anna like a meaty bone — it’s the same sound she’s heard when her neighbor’s dog Snoopy has scored a tasty post-dinner chicken leg, so she assumes her parents like the dog and have given him a treat).

Eventually, Anna hears the dog leave, and she opens the lid to get out with her brother.

. . . And thus begins the story of a 5 year-old girl whose parents have just been killed (and eaten, ugh) by a bear and who is now alone in the woods with a 2 year-old and no comprehension whatsoever of what’s just happened or what might be coming next.

In theory, this is a truly incredible novel.  Anna’s narration is a fascinating mix of childish stream of consciousness and observation, giving us a close look at how a 5 year-old perceives the world.  The beginning of the novel and the end are the strongest, as we watch Anna struggle first with trying to figure out what’s going on and later with the confusing nature of her own emotional responses.

The problem with having a 5 year-old as your narrator, though, reveals itself once you get past the initial fascination with the idea of having a 5 year-old as your narrator. There’s a reason why 5 year-olds aren’t more widely published, after all, and that reason is that they aren’t terribly proficient writers.  As an experiment, The Bear is intriguing and unique.  As a novel, on the other hand, it’s easily four times too long.  This story would’ve been far more effectively told in a much shorter format — a novella or even a short story could’ve made it a piece of absolute genius.  Instead, the end result is weakened tremendously by the need to fill so many pages with the observations of a child who doesn’t really have anything to do or say.   Ever spend a lot of time with a bored kid?  It’s not usually when they’re at their most entertaining, know what I mean?

Though the end of the book is strong and moving, so much slogging through tedium was required to get there, any power it might have had was almost completely sapped by my increasing impatience overall.  If you’re looking for a good suspenseful story about two children who survive a bear attack, in other words, this is not the book for you. I feel like I read somewhere recently that there’s a plan to adapt this story for a film, though, and if that happens, I’d definitely be interested in seeing it — at its heart, this really is a very good story.  But it’s definitely the rare occasion where a novel that has a unique narrator, told primarily through that narrator’s thoughts, would actually make for a far stronger movie than book.

Despite my disappointment and frustration, I do think there’s some value to picking this one up; if you’re interested in the study of writing, for example, you’ll find a lot to chew on here (pun intended, sorry).  My advice?  Read the first and last 50 pages for the sake of the experiment, and save yourself 150 pages of Stick annoying his big sister by pooping all over the place. After all, if you have children, you probably get quite enough of that at home already.

[FICTION]

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BOOK: Sycamore Row by John Grisham (2013)

February 26, 2014

sycarmoreI’m not a big John Grisham reader — over the years, I’ve probably only picked up two or three of his books and while I’ve enjoyed them, I’ve never really been full-on bitten by the Grisham bug.  I’ve seen almost all of the movies based on his novels, though, and typically have liked them better than the books they were based on — as with Stephen King, I’ve often felt Grisham is a better storyteller than he is a writer.

I picked this one up, in fact, because I had just seen the Matthew McConaughey film A Time to Kill recently for the first time in years, and I had forgotten how good it was. For those who have forgotten or never saw the film/read the book, that story is about a young  Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, defending a black father, Carl Lee Hailey, on trial for capital murder after killing the two racists who brutally assault his little girl.

Sycamore Row is a sequel to A Time to Kill, picking up a few years later.  Brigance is enjoying a booming career, thanks to his success in the Carl Lee Hailey case.  Also thanks to that case, he’s become the most trusted advocate for African American families in the region. It’s that reputation that undoubtedly made Seth Hubbard choose Jake to be the executor of his estate — a selection Brigance discovers the day after Hubbard’s suicide, when he receives a letter from the dead man in the mail.  The letter tells Jake to read the enclosed document — a handwritten will — but keep it a secret until the day after his funeral.   Then Jake is to file it with the court and get ready to defend it tooth and nail.  Why?  Because first Seth Hubbard changed his mind, and then he changed his will — his estate, all $24 million of it, is no longer to be equally divided up amongst his two (bratty) children, but instead to be given, almost in full, to his black housekeeper Lettie Lang.

CUE SHOCK AND AWE! KABOOM!

As soon as the funeral is over, a huge legal battle erupts as the family members ousted by the new will try to claw their way back in.  Their father was dying of cancer and had prescriptions for heavy-duty pain medications; he can’t possibly have been in his right mind when he wrote this cuckoo-crazy new will, they argue.  Add to that the fact a previous employer of Lettie’s, another elderly person, had done almost the same thing decades earlier, not to mention Lettie’s no-good husband’s massive gambling debts, and it sure looks like Lettie may have intentionally influenced Seth’s choices at the end when he was blitzed on medication and blinded by intractable pain.

Yet as Jake and his old mentor Lucian look into the past for answers, the reason Hubbard made the decision he did becomes clear.  It’s a decision rooted in guilt over an incident a generation before his own, involving both the Hubbard and Lang families, a plot of land, and a hangin’ tree.  Over the span of the novel’s story, as more is revealed both about the past and about the present, the question becomes less, “Does Lettie Lang deserve the money?” and more “Will the people of Clanton —  white OR black — stand for letting a black woman become the richest person in town?”  The answer to the former might be an easy “yes,” but the answer to the latter is a whole lot more complicated — especially in Ford County, Mississippi.

Despite the fact Grisham goes a little overboard here and there with the drudgery of probate law (I mean, thanks for striving for realism, and all, but you could strive for a little less realism next time, sir. Because: zzzzzzz . . .), this is a really entertaining, well-written novel.  It clearly sets up the Brigance character for future novels, as well — something I’d definitely welcome after reading this one.  Solid, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

Recommended!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: S. by Doug Dorst & J. J. Abrams (2013)

January 16, 2014

booktitleThis gorgeously crafted object is not your ordinary book, something you’ll realize the moment you slide it out of the box it comes in and discover that rather than a contemporary novel titled S., you are instead holding an old cloth-bound library book, complete with faded spine label and date due stamps, titled Ship of Theseus.  

Crack that puppy open, and what you find inside is even more unexpected:  a ton of scribbling in the margins (librarians everywhere here gasp collectively in horror), plus a wide variety of artifacts tucked inside the pages — a map drawn on a napkin, a photograph, some postcards, a letter, etc.

Once you begin to read, it all becomes clear.  Well, “clear” might not be the right word, but the conceit is revealed — S. is actually three stories in one (or 4, depending on how you count them), the combination of which tell a story spanning generations about a mysterious author (or body of authors, perhaps), intrigue, political/social dissent, and love.

The first of the three stories is the actual novel Ship of Theseus itself, (fictitiously) written by a man named V.M. Straka.  Ship of Theseus is about a dude, known only as “S.,” who wakes up one day with no memory of who he is or where he came from.  S. quickly finds himself hurtling through a bizarre journey that involves being kidnapped by pirates who may or may not be ghosts, falling in with a crowd of dissidents being hunted by a violent gang of Bad Guys in Power, and developing a pretty all-consuming crush on a woman he doesn’t actually know and can’t actually find.

The second story trails through the book through its footnotes.  This edition of Ship of Theseus was (fictitiously) translated by someone named F. X. Caldeira, whose introduction and footnotes throughout the novel are, we come to learn, lightly disguised codes — messages that reveal information about Straka’s life and identity.  (Sort of.)

The third story is the one written in the margins — notes to and from two college students in the present day.  The first is the book’s owner, a graduate student named Eric who stole this copy of Ship of Theseus from a local library (again with the collective librarian gasping) when he was a teenager and has been obsessed with Straka’s writings ever since.  He’s working on his thesis about Straka, but has been ousted from the school after a series of scandals we gradually learn about as we go.

Eric left the book out in a university library study room one day, and returned to find notes in the margins from someone else — an undergraduate named Jen.  Soon, the two are writing to each other, getting to know one another through their observations about the story and the way they tie those observations to their own lives.  There’s also a sort of menacing subplot in which Eric’s old adviser, and/or someone else who doesn’t want Eric and Jen to be looking so closely at Straka’s life, may or may not be following them around, might or might not be breaking into Jen’s apartment, and is or possibly isn’t acting totally scary.  

(By the way, some people consider Eric’s teenage penciled notes to be the 3rd narrative, with the ink-based scribbles between him and Jen the 4th. But since the penciled notes don’t tell a story independent of the ink-based ones, I count them all as one. Just in case you were wondering.)

For those who found Mark Danielewski’s experimental novel House of Leaves impossible to get through, this is probably not the book for you.   I loved House of Leaves, and it’s why I was drawn to S. — the experimental nature of both books is something I find energizingly creative.

On the other hand, while I greatly enjoyed the primary story, Ship of Theseus, the correspondence between Jen and Eric didn’t do all that much for me.  It’s sweet how they fall in love with each other and their voices are very authentically young-20-something and blah blah, but the “is the menacing adviser after them?” element doesn’t go anywhere, and neither, really, did their intensive probing of Caldeira’s footnotes and Straka’s life.  Plus, while the items tucked into the pages are interesting, and wonderfully designed in many cases, most of them didn’t have any obvious purpose or meaning or even relevance, which was confusing.

By the time I hit the end of the book, I felt pretty dissatisfied with all of these extraneous elements on the whole — there wasn’t enough resolution to any of the pressing questions for me, and the intriguing addition of the sinister goings-on in the present doesn’t end up amounting to anything, which kind of felt like cheating to me.  Though, frankly, it’s not at all out of the ordinary for a J. J. Abrams project to be filled with tantalizing subplots that go nowhere and/or an ending that is wholly dissatisfying, so it’s my own damn fault if I was expecting something else. (Incidentally, while Abrams has gotten almost all the press for this book, he was merely the concept man — Doug Dorst wrote the entire thing, and while I’ve never read anything by him before, after reading Ship of Theseus, I’m definitely going to be looking for more of his work.)

Overall, I absolutely, whole-heartedly recommend this book simply for the unique, creative experience of reading it.  It’s a gorgeous artifact, to boot — it’s a beautiful, lovely, wonderful physical thing. Plus, as I keep saying, I enjoyed Ship of Theseus, which is weird and dark and fascinating, even while it too has elements that don’t quite hold up.

That said, if you get into this thing and you find you can’t keep up with the footnotes and the scribbles and the postcards and other whatnots, just give yourself license to skip all of that and stick to the primary narrative.  You won’t be missing much, really, other than the experience of experiencing such a unique experience.  That’s not worth nothing, if you ask me, but ultimately the Eric/Jen part isn’t satisfying enough to be worthy of any degree of struggle.  The uniqueness of this book lies in the Theseus story and in its physical form — all the rest is somewhat lumpy gravy.

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