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The Outsiders

Author: S.E. Hinton

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1967

I read it: June 2016 (re-read)

the outsiders

“Soda’s enough, and I’d have him until I got out of school. I don’t care about Darry. But I was still lying and I knew it. I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me.”

Ponyboy’s story is one long attempt to understand his brothers and how he relates to them. With their parents dead, Darry is the oldest and fears for the safety of his two younger brothers, as well as the peripheral members of the Greaser crowd. The emotional core of the book is the tight connection between these young men, including of course the tragic Johnny Cade. The swift authenticity of the dialogue houses growing-up-too-fast insights, such as the conversations between Pony and Sherry Valance, one of the Socs:

“Did you ever hear of having more than you wanted? So that you couldn’t want anything else and then started looking for something else to want? It seems like we’re always searching for something to satisfy us, and never finding it. Maybe if we could lose our cool we could.”

“That’s why we’re separated,” I said. “It’s not money, it’s feeling—you don’t feel anything and we feel too violently.”

It’s the time of drive-ins, dime novels, and switchblade knives, apparently taking place in Tulsa, Okalahoma, though this is never stated in the novel. The clarity of the era and genuine feel of its characters make it an item of Americana, as surely a classic as To Kill A Mockingbird. And like that book, it has an economy of plot to make any writer jealous. It also has the neat trick of being a long essay written by Ponyboy himself, to the point where the last line of the book is the same as the first.

Everything about this book is basically perfect, but we are also obligated to point out the activities of the author herself. Hinton started this book as a teenager, and it was published when she was eighteen. IT WAS PUBLISHED WHEN SHE WAS EIGHTEEN. Let’s all bow down in a moment of reverence to this successor of Mary Shelley’s claim. The Outsiders is a book that touches transcendence both on its own merits and through the realities of how it came to be.

Movie corner: A fun one to revisit, the movie is as brisk and sweet and sad as the book. It focuses more on the triangle of Pony, Johnny, and Dally (Matt Dillon) than on the complex relationship between Pony and his brothers. In fact, Sodapop (Rob Lowe) shows up for pretty much only one scene, as does the Tom Cruise pal. The main reason to watch is to tally these young stars along with Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, and Diane Lane.

Music corner: There’s an old Get Up Kids song called “Stay Gold, Ponyboy” which is probably enjoyable only to those who have nostalgia for it. Then there’s the much newer and better First Aid Kit song “Stay Gold” from the album of that name (curiously, one of several albums with “gold” in the title that all came out within a year). I’m sure there are plenty of other references in songs I haven’t heard.

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2016 in Novels

 

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The Good Lord Bird

Author: James McBride

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2013

I read it: June 2016

good lord

I knew next to nothing about the abolitionist John Brown, but this book has given me a good sense in the historical fiction fashion. A rowdy and righteous character, he’s one of the more fascinating characters of the American West, at least in James McBride’s interpretation. The protagonist, “Onion,” has this to say about Brown, or “the Old Man”:

The Old Man weren’t normal. For one thing, he rarely ate, and he seemed to sleep mostly atop his horse. He was old compared to his men, wrinkled and wiry, but nearly as strong as every one of them except Fred. He marched for hours without stopping, his shoes full of holes, and was overall gruff and hard generally. … He sprinkled most of his conversation with Bible talk, “thees” and “thous” and “takest” and so forth. He mangled the Bible more than any man I ever knowed, including my Pa, but with a bigger purpose, ’cause he knowed more words. Only when he got hot did the Old Man quote the Bible exact to the letter, and then it was trouble, for it meant someone was about to walk to the quit line. He was a lot to deal with, Old Brown.

The mangled Bible quoting is fantastic fun, the kind of speculative past language that may or may not have existed out on the plains of the day. It feels authentic and outlandish, and the sharp conversations combine with a rollicking plot to really push the book along. Old Man Brown overshadows most everything, except for a middle section in which Onion is separated from him. Onion’s main deal is that he is a former slave captured away and enlisted in Brown’s army, but mistaken for a girl. He uses this to his advantage to avoid fighting for the most part. He also reflects on the complexities and paradoxes of his situation, such as how poor he is living as an outlaw:

That’s the thing about working under Old John Brown, and if I’m tellin’ a lie I hope I drop down a corpse after I tell it: I was starving fooling with him. I was never hungry when I was a slave. Only when I got free was I eating out of garbage barrels.

He also speculates on Brown’s fervent mission to bring the freedom fight directly out in the open, in which the famous troublemaker “reckoned every colored wanted to fight for his freedom. It never occurred to him that they would feel any other way.” While the whites are out arguing over slavery through the lenses of land and money and culture, many of the slaves can only look out for themselves and try not to take a position, which of course baffles Brown. And even though this isn’t meant to be a strictly academic text, McBride hints at even more historical shades of gray in describing the opinions on various types of slave holders, some of which were worse than others:

Slave traders was generally despised. Even Pro Slavers didn’t favor them much, for men who traded cash for blood wasn’t considered working people, but more like thieves or traders in souls and your basic superstitious pioneer didn’t take to them types.

Further along the interesting historical paths we encounter layered portrayals of Frederick Douglass (“There ain’t nothing gets a Yankee madder than a smart colored person, of which I reckon they figured there was only one in the world, Mr. Douglass.”) and Harriet Tubman (“The wind seemed to live in that woman’s face. Looking at her was like staring at a hurricane.”) The book’s action leads up to Brown’s raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, another educational episode.

But even aside from the facts the book is based on, it’s just a damn fine Western novel. There are gunfights and shady characters, long hours on the trail and dank saloons, a  general atmosphere of distrust mixed with the desperate and righteous causes of the adventurers. It’s consistently funny (“That fool was ugly enough to make you think the Lord put him together with His eyes closed, guessing.”) and always circling back to its tentpole figure (“The Old Man had more bad luck than any man I ever knowed, and that can’t help but make a person likable and interesting.”). As you can see, it’s also endlessly quotable.

A direct descendant of Huck Finn, Onion is just young enough to be wide-eyed at the world and not yet worn down by all the death around him. His river is not the Mississippi but the early streams of a national revolution, and he tells it like he sees it. The book may be only one author’s interpretation of a time, but its grand success is putting the reader there so effectively and enjoyably. American summer reads don’t come much more satisfying than this one.

 

 

 
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Posted by on July 15, 2016 in Novels

 

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Forest of Memory

Author: Mary Robinette Kowal

Type: Fiction, short story

Published: 2016

I read it: May 2016

forest

This review was originally published on The Stake.

What happens when every instant can be recorded and transmitted? The most sought-after items become those previously found at antique stores. And what happens when connectivity ceases and you are thrown back into a purely sensory world? Memory becomes the dim, shifting forest that our ancestors knew.

Trim in length as it may be, science fiction institution Tor has published the standalone short story Forest of Memory from Hugo winner Mary Robinette Kowal. It centers on Katya, who bikes through a picturesque slice of Oregon to purchase a typewriter and a dictionary for the purposes of reselling them to wealthy clients. These affectionate nods to the physicality of the written word underline the form of the story, which is itself an item created and sold by Katya because of the uniqueness of its content. You see, Katya’s expertise is Authenticities and Captures. When she is unexpectedly captured on her ride home, she becomes a potential authenticity when she goes offline for three days. But there is no objective evidence to support her narrative.

In this world, three days offline is its own form of being “missing,” of coming unhooked from the safety of society. Kowal does not try to present Katya as a pathetic example of modern internet addiction, but rather just a regular citizen getting by 100 or so years in the future. When her AI ceases to talk into her ear it’s jarring, but the main reason she freaks out is because the loss of connection coincides with an armed man in the woods who won’t let her leave.

Katya learns that this man, whom she simply dubs “Johnny,” is also in the service of employers. He has downed a couple deer on the trail, though apparently not for killing purposes. He immobilizes her and offers no information, and the most Katya can piece together is that Johnny’s mission with the deer seems to correlate with the fact of her being off the grid, which is unheard of. She is forced to reflect on her bodily sensations and the fear of realizing she is one person, alone, with only her brain and no answers.

No answers: that’s what you have to be okay with by the last page. But isn’t that the case with so much great speculative fiction? There are hints at answers, and some fascinating questions. This little slice of sci-fi is the perfect accompaniment to a camping trip on an unplugged weekend. Peruse it in the midst of our subtle world in which not every tree is recorded, and when you look away you can’t be fully certain which trees were even there at all.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2016 in Short stories

 

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The BFG

Author: Roald Dahl

Artist: Quentin Blake

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1982

I read it: June 2016

the bfg

Oh England, great and wondrous place, and the source of much international contention at the moment. What happened to your quaint and happy times, when queens lived in castles and giants roamed the land?

I suppose the mother country was never the idyll that books would make it, but the image is reinforced by The BFG, which, although published just the year before I was born, seems like it could have taken place in several earlier decades. Even the queen folds nicely into the fantastical atmosphere, and I had to remind myself that this was a fictionalized version of a real person. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This is a fun, sweet tale of orphan Sophie falling in with the Big Friendly Giant. He’s the only nice giant among ten, and the other nine are all bigger and meaner. They also like to gobble up human beans every night, deciding on which country to chomp citizens in based on the type of delicacy (an Esquimo to cool down with, avoiding Greece because the people taste greasy, etc.). Only the BFG avoids eating people, being the only human sympathizer and artistically refined giant. His day job is catching dreams, and he knows their “dark and dusky secrets.”

The BFT possesses other abilities, such as running and jumping, blowing dreams into children’s heads at night, and uncanny hearing due to his big ears: “Such wonderful and terrible sounds I is hearing! Some of them you would never wish to be hearing yourself! But some is like glorious music!” This is the BFG’s speaking pattern, having only been educated through studying one Charles Dickens book, and the language is the most fun part about The BFG. It has its puns and winks (reminding me a bit of The Phantom Tollbooth, and also because of the line drawings) but the best part is the inundation of nonsense words. The book is mostly conversation and reads like a long version of “Jabberwocky.” As the BFG explains, “I cannot be helping it if I sometimes is saying things a little squiggly.” (He was also ahead of his time in exclaiming “Redunculous!”)

So Sophie spends a lot of time in the land of giants and she and the BFG concoct a scheme to stop the beastlier giants from eating people, mostly children. These giants have fearsome names like the Fleshlumpeater, the Bloodbottler, and, inexplicably, the Butcher Boy, who goes entirely undescribed and seems the most nightmarish by name alone. Anyway, their grand plan is what brings them to the Queen of England, that fairy tale person in a fairy tale land, so cozy and so different from our world of 2016.

 
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Posted by on July 1, 2016 in Novels

 

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Rose Madder

Author: Stephen King

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1995

I read it: May 2016

rose madder 2

I used to have a bookmark that listed all the major Stephen King titles that related to The Dark Tower. I can’t find the bookmark now, but I always remembered that Rose Madder was the only title I hadn’t checked off my list. This book exists in huge numbers in the used bookstore circuit, so I snagged a copy and then let it hang around long enough that it wore me down and I read it.

And now I feel a bit worn down for having read it. It took me a month and a half, which is pretty long for a plain novel of average length. I went in figuring it would be more work than play, so I just chipped away when I could. The story is about a woman leaving a horrifically abusive marriage, so at least I was confident that she would end up in a much better place by the last page. Then it just became a matter of how much nastiness there was to endure along the way.

Rose’s journey seemed real enough, but the overall tension is created by also following her policeman husband, Norman. There are chapters from his POV so that the reader knows just how close he is in pursuing Rose as she flees to a new life. It works in that regard, but really, how much do we want to get inside the head of this madman? Norman’s chapters are all in italics, which seems to be the author’s way of saying, “Sorry, I didn’t intend for this person to be such a central part, but the plot demands this structure, so let’s get through this together.” It was painstaking at times.

The supernatural stuff is what I was waiting for. That comes around the halfway point, when Rose (becoming Rosie) finally steps into her pawnshop painting. This is neat stuff, centered on the mythology of the minotaur in the maze as well as a sort of otherwordly Rose doppelganger. (There’s a part where Rose is following the sound a crying baby, which I read in the middle of the night while my own boy was fighting sleep in the living room. I liked this tie-in to the twilight strangeness.) After the character’s first time into this dimension you know the book will end up back there, so then it’s a matter of going through the paces to circle back.

The Wikipedia entry for this book states that King called this one and Insomnia “stiff, trying-too-hard novels.” I liked Insomnia for what it was, but I see what he means. For all the blood spilled throughout Rose Madder, the whole thing remains a bit too cerebral, as if it can only be studied at arm’s length. Even so, there are the striking set pieces, such as a skirmish taking place outside the bathrooms at an outdoor park, which illustrate how King can pull off the mechanics of any physical scene. These can always be plumbed for writing lessons.

And then there are the few brief references that remind me why this was on my list in the first place: “Ka is the wheel that moves the world, and the man or woman who rages against it will be crushed under its rim.” It’s only a thin connection, but there you have it. This book isn’t really DT-essential. If anything, the mysterious painting aspect shares a concept with Lisey’s Story, which came a decade later and is one of my favorites of that King era. It’s amazing the guy has so many books out there that he can casually look back on some, like Rose Madder, as stiff practice for better things to come.

 
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Posted by on June 24, 2016 in Novels

 

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Thrown

Author: Kerry Howley

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2014

I read it: May 2016

thrown

So this is a book about mixed martial arts (MMA), but more specifically about the individual trajectories of two aspiring fighters. And more specifically than that, it’s about Kerry Howley’s mission to “find a proper object of study” and get “inside the world of ecstatic experience.” Like most worthy non-fiction pursuits, it has a lot to do with the author’s obsession with the subject matter.

The action starts in Des Moines with Howley attending her first MMA fight, then branches to other parts of Iowa (like Cedar Rapids) and the midwest (Milwaukee). Eventually the chronicled fights extend to Vegas, New Jersey, and even Brazil. Between the fights are long months in which the fighters train and fast and are generally alone, with the exception of their “spacetakers.” Howley puts all her energy into becoming one of these, living intimately with her selected fighters, trying to get as far into their culture and their heads as she can.

It’s an interesting project on the whole, though the reader has to get past the author’s (deliberately?) pretentious writing style. It seems she wants to both mock her philosophy professors while also writing for them. She desires so badly to discover a non-academic world but then seems to limit her reading audience to only those in academia. Around the halfway point I was sucked in enough that these things didn’t bother me, and I was along for the ride. I wish there was more broad context and history of MMA included to balance out the personal analyses of the individual fighters, but some great writing definitely put me in the scenes at the crucial moments.

We could stop here and it’d be a decent book. But depending on how much you read up on the intentions of this work, your opinion of it may descend into a complete tailspin. At least, it did for me.

Supposedly this book has a “fictional narrator” named Kit. As in, this person is introduced on page 65 as different from the person of Kerry Howley, and therefore should not be considered reliable. The justification is eye-rollingly slim: “All narrators, I say, are fiction.” I skimmed this part and deliberately forgot about it so I could enjoy the rest of the book, but in our book club discussion this concept was almost entirely what we talked about.

I have trouble finding the reasoning for this tactic. I’m not saying writers shouldn’t get experimental—write whatever and however you want to write. It’s just that the flap of the book says this is a “work of literary nonfiction” in which “acclaimed essayist Kerry Howley follows these men for three years.” Well, does she? Are we supposed to take her observations as fact, or are some things purely made up for the sake of giving color to a few subplots (as if this story even needed exaggerating)? The distinction matters when it comes to fiction vs. nonfiction. There is enough deliberate misinformation in the world, and it’s not helping anyone to blur the lines. Doing so leads us down the first few steps toward moral relativism and global subjectivity, and therein lie dragons of chaos.

So Kerry Howley spent years “hoping to record a moment of transcendence.” She came far closer than most people ever will. But I remain baffled at this failed experiment in form. I don’t think it’s just that I didn’t “get it”—one of the esteemed reviewers on the back cover called the book a “work of rigorous nonfiction.” Did he also not get it? Rigorous. Either words have meaning, or they don’t. What are our definitions today?

 

 

 
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Posted by on June 17, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject

 

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City of Saints and Madmen

Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2002 (this version)

I read it: May 2016

city of saints

The first version I found at Half Price Books was only “The Book of Ambergris.” It’s an older paperback with the cover evoking a surrealist Spanish painting, an appropriate little artifact that vibes well with the contents of the book. And there is a clear love of books within the pages themselves: the first character you meet tries to find a unique book to give to a woman he falls for. And in Ambergris, for whatever reason, there is an unaccountably high number of publishers, historians, authors, and artists.

“The Book of Ambergris” features the four core Ambergris novellas. First is “Dradin, In Love” which sets the stage for every strange thing to come. Written in a thick, flowing prose, “Dradin” introduces us to the strange city where “buildings battled for breath and space like centuries-slow soldiers in brick-to-brick combat.” It’s a place constantly on the verge of anarchy: “like a renegade clock, it ran on and wound itself heedless, empowered by the insane weight of its own inertia, the weight of its own citizenry, stamping one, two, three hundred thousand strong.” Dradin, a failed missionary, returns to Ambergris just before the Festival of the Freshwater Squid, a particularly wild night of revelry. He is one of the many changed by the city around him.

This potent story is followed by “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris,” by one Duncan Shriek. A right turn in tone, this piece is a blast. Shriek writes a pamphlet sold by the questionable store Hoegbotton & Sons (featured in the first story), but he’s a historian wary of dry histories. For fear of putting his reader to sleep, he uses footnotes to inject humorous asides. This postmodern experiment holds up perfectly, and is VanderMeer at his most creative (not to mention thorough, attempting a Tolkien-esque overview of his fiction’s histories). Most intriguingly, Shriek’s guide gives us the shadowy history of the mushroom dwellers, or “gray caps,” an indigenous race who live underground and seem to control the ever-present fungus that infiltrates Ambergris. And just when you’re bummed that “Early History” has come to an end, it’s followed by a glossary. Penned by Duncan’s sister Janice Shriek, it’s an alphabetical list of the proper nouns from the guide. But of course it’s not that simple: it’s really an extension of the miniature stories themselves.

The last two works in “The Book of Ambergris” turn back toward the serious. “The Transformation of Martin Lake” follows an artist whose unwilling participation in ceremonial violence (and the city’s vicious politics) causes him to create art that puts him in the history books. “The Strange Case of X” dives right into metafiction, chronicling a man under psychological scrutiny who claims to have been transported into—and then writes stories about—a wondrous place called Ambergris. For example, this mentally unstable character wrote Dradin, In Love and Other Tales of the City. This is where VanderMeer becomes one of his very own madmen, questioning reality itself. The story spawns one of the author’s strongest quotes: “It is the nature of the writer to question the validity of his world and yet to rely on his senses to describe it. From what other tension can great literature be born?”

I fell hard for VanderMeer’s brand of tension. That’s why I was only too excited to realize that there were expanded editions of this book. I instantly sought out the updated City of Saints and Madmen (the one with the cover featured above) and couldn’t wait to get into more Ambergris. I knew this version was great when the “Other Books By The Author” page included some real works (Veniss Underground), some that exist within the Ambergris reality (The Refraction of Light in a Prison is the book acquired by Dradin), as well as others previously unmentioned that hint at further mysteries uncovered.

The first half of the full edition is made up of “The Book of Ambergris,” and the back half has added material. The most immersive selection is “King Squid,” an amusing scientific monograph by one Frederick Madnok, which explores (alongside flowery artwork) the importance of the squid that come up the River Moth and their key role in Ambergris’ economy and cultural identity. Fantastical naturalism is one of VanderMeer’s strongest niches, and readers of his more recent work might perk up at the mention of “the relationship between scientist and tidal pool.” Similar to “Early History,” “King Squid” has a bibliography of equal length to the story itself, with entries like “Flaunt, Contense T., How to Order Your Bibliography for Maximum Reader Impact, The Writing Life Consortium.” These are some of the most fun pages in the book.

The other notable addition is “The Cage,” a story that can’t exactly be called standalone (because everything about Ambergris is connected) but functions well as a self-contained horror story. It has plenty of fungus and sweat and distrust, not to mention the ever-present threat of the gray caps. Because the protagonist is one of the Hoegbotton curators, the story fills in yet another crucial piece of Ambergris history.

All told, it’s the immersive feeling and distinct sense of place that most affect the reader, regardless of the story or character featured at any given point in the book. In a recounting of the challenges behind constructing City of Saints and Madmen, VanderMeer relayed, “Somewhere out there, Ambergris existed, and I was just channeling ‘reports’ from the place.” There seem to be countless possible layers to discover, with lines blurred between the written stories and the referenced ones. (Who wouldn’t want to read Vivian Price Rogers’ The Torture Squid Beat Up Some Priests, especially when we get a glimpse at the classic paperback cover art?) VanderMeer’s mind is one of a kind, creating an obscure history in an aggressively modern fashion. The whole thing is ambitiously lofty without ever feeling pretentious; highly experimental yet purposeful, present, and effective. Does Ambergris excite us or make us afraid? Do we want to visit the city, or run away from it? Amazingly, it feels like you could really answer these questions, as if the place really existed.

 
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Posted by on June 10, 2016 in Short stories

 

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