Eden West

Author: Pete Hautman

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: July 2015


This is the story of Jacob, raised in a cult in rural Montana since age five. He’s about to turn 18 and faces a life of dutiful faith, with a wife chosen for him. His straightforward path is shaken up by two outsiders his age: one is another young man who has arrived as a new recruit against his will, and the other is a young woman who lives on a ranch that shares a border with Nodd, the home of Jacob’s people. Though their community is small, they do not think of themselves imprisoned on a parcel of land. Instead, the fence that Jacob surveys on his rounds is “a strip of armor, a strand of chain mail that made us stronger, a shield to protect us.”

Hautman effectively blends a few of his past ideas into a unique study of an isolated community. He takes the religious questioning from Godless and the honest budding love from The Big Crunch to concoct a slower, more deliberate story that blurs the line between YA and regular adult fiction. Jacob’s story is superficially about teenagers, but has a rounded cast of adults who are just as integral as the few young people. The book has a serious tone because Jacob is a rather serious person, and it has a slow pace because life for the protagonist has been relatively simple up until this point. Each bit of new information is cause for reflection.

“There is a thing I do that frightens me, but I cannot resist.” This is an opening sentence of a chapter from inside Jacob’s head, and a lot of the novel is about his internal struggles with purity and righteousness, both sexual and mental. Those in Hautman’s audience who were raised in some version of Abrahamic religion can probably connect with the concept of the weight of sin, which haunts Jacob continually. At one point Jacob justifies his actions by realizing that he is too far gone, and therefore may as well “sin avidly, hungrily, ardently.” It’s the same realization that Huck Finn has on the river, because he is also trapped between faulty teachings and the whispers of his own conscience.

Readers are asked to put themselves into the shoes of these isolated people, who were not portrayed as particularly violent or crazy, just alone. When outsiders come knocking, it makes sense that the devotees would think they are here “to undo us with their lies and their hatred.” Even if the lies and hatred are imagined, the influence of the outside world probably would indeed “undo” them. Their mindset is one of a small tribe in a former time, and there is no reconciling their efforts with modernity. Jacob slowly comes to realize that he will be forced to painfully confront the frightening outside world, or forced to painfully embrace the coming endtimes and pray all the harder. It’s not an enviable choice.

There are more exciting books out there, but this one is far from boring. In fact, the cadence of the language cast a sort of comforting spell over me, and I rather looked forward to reading on because of the careful unfolding of Jacob’s transition into adulthood. It’s dramatic without being flashy, and suggests a realism that few books about religion can probably reach.

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Posted by on August 28, 2015 in Novels


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The Martian Way

Author: Isaac Asimov

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: The Martian Way and Other Stories

Published: 1955 (this collection), 1952-1954 (original stories)

I read it: July 2015


This $2 paperback caught Laura’s eye because the weekend that we perused Jackson Street Booksellers in Omaha, we were partway through reading The Martian. Used bookstores are great places to poke around for some Asimov, and this one in particular with its clever red page edges was a clear winner.

The title story is one of only four in this slim collection. It tells the tale of a few “Scavengers” out on a routine, not-quite-legal mission. They are Martians, a few generations from the first colonizers of Mars. They travel space in pairs to scavenge water from the atmosphere, which they need for their planet. The water comes from Earth, after being released by spaceships that need it for propulsion. Earth politicians get it in their head that the Martians are opportunists who are effectively stealing Earth’s resources without permission. In turn, the Martians write off those on the boring planet as “Grounders” and “dirt-eating farmers.”

This tale is about human expansion into the universe, and overall is daring and celebratory in a manner that Carl Sagan would appreciate. It’s not without its drama—the Scavengers fret about leaving family behind, keeping up their profession, and risking their lives to venture further out and become independent of Earth. The phrase “the Martian way” is spoken by the characters to capture this sense of enterprise that the Earth folk lack. There’s also the passion for aesthetics that Asimov is familiar for, when he writes about the feeling of the explorers drifting through space and finding “complete peace in the middle of a beauty-drenched universe.”

The second story, “Youth,” also focuses tightly on its title. A bit thin on story development, it tells parallel stories of species crash-landing and first being discovered by the youth of an alien planet. It basically serves to reemphasize the point that a discerning extra-terrestrial visitor “would not harm the young of an intelligent species,” at the very least for the sake of its own safety. The story is very pro-youth, pro-patience, and anti-shoot first, ask questions later. Score another one for Asimov.

“The Deep” kicks off with a great first sentence: “In the end, any particular planet must die.” It nicely echoes the previous story in that it features a species that could be the same as the aliens presented in “Youth,” as if Asimov finished one story only to furiously start another before he lost a new thread. “The Deep” once again explores colonization and expansion, the concepts of humanness vs. alienness, and, most specifically, the mysterious qualities of a parent-child bond. It’s one of the strongest entries, along with the final selection, “Sucker Bait.”

The fourth story is the longest, probably enough to earn it novella status. This made me wonder why the entire book wasn’t called “Sucker Bait,” but I suppose that’s not quite as appealing as the chosen title. Either way, it’s a quality tale that Asimov uses to bring several of the book’s themes home. Psychology is big here, focusing on the capabilities of special humans instead of alien intelligences. Civilization’s expansion and need for more space is the central driver as a specialized crew explores a planet that houses a mystery: the complete death of earlier colonizers. The thirst for knowledge is balanced with the awe of space travel (“figures are one thing and stars are another”) and human unease of confronting the unknown raises interesting questions (at one point a character points out, “You’re watching the birth of a superstition, and that’s something, isn’t it?”). An intriguing slice of humanity is packed into “Sucker Bait.”

This book strikes me as an appropriate starting point for a newcomer to try out Isaac Asimov. I’d recommend these four stories over the mostly shorter, but less impactful, ones in Buy Jupiter. And you can get the full breadth of the author’s style and interests without being pinned down to a novel. It’s still no overstatement that the covers of these books boldly proclaim him to be the master of science fiction.

Cover art corner: Speaking of covers, this one is gorgeously effective. A strange planet hangs in a rainbow of colors. The top half shows a glistening mass of designed structures, its middle is circumscribed by a zipping spacecraft, and the bottom half is covered in dimness and cracking foundations. A satellite burns in the distance, and a probe or ship floats from the foreground toward the planet. Someone at Fawcett Crest 60 years ago knew what they were doing.

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Posted by on August 21, 2015 in Short stories


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And Then There Were None

Author: Agatha Christie

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1939

I read it: July 2015


And Then There Were None is a tough one to recommend but also a tough one to criticize. It seems often mentioned as one of Christie’s best works, probably due to its (ahem) killer premise. Ten people are summoned to a mysterious island and each have a dark secret. One by one they get picked off by a murderer who has a game to play. It’s creepy in a sterile way:

If this had been an old house, with creaking wood, and dark shadows, and heavily panelled walls, there might have been an eerie feeling. But this house was the essence of modernity. There were no dark corners—no possible sliding panels—it was flooded with electric light—everything was new and bright and shining. There was nothing hidden in this house, nothing concealed. It had no atmosphere about it.

Somehow, that was the most frightening thing of all.

The whole story has this feeling of unease, of offness. I think a lot of it has to do with there being no central detective or inspector. The characters are at a complete loss to figure out why this is happening to them, and the paranoia grows and grows. The murders are framed around a children’s rhyme about ten Indian boys who die or disappear, each couplet a clue to how the next person is to be murdered. It’s a great touch and adds a lot of flavor to the book (thankfully the title of Ten Little Indians was replaced over time—it’s one that’s better left in the hands of Sherman Alexie).

The book moves at a breakneck speed, as if written in a white-hot burst of creativity after an amazing dream in which the concept became clear to the author. It’s sharp and intriguing and could easily be read in one sitting. But its format is its weakness: this is not a well-written novel. There is an overabundance of ellipses to push the reader to the next paragraph, and strange formatting choices like dialogue that breaks a line too early:

Philip Lombard said affably:

“Sleeping the clock round? Wells, shows you’ve got an easy conscience.”

Blore said shortly:

“What’s the matter?”

And on like that. While Christie injects enough personal detail to make the characters real, the book is propelled by pure plot. And that’s fine, because the mystery is so delicious. It’s the perfect book to get you through a long plane ride or a day sick in bed. But I also think that it could be a couple hundred pages longer, with more deliberate pacing and a less omniscient narrator, and still deliver all the thrills of the reveal.

More than anything, I’d like to see a movie version. It’s so perfectly set up for a visual take. It’s clear now that many of the ideas were used in the comedy Clue, to great success. What a cool story. Just be sure it’s not the only Agatha Christie you make time for, as her overall writing skills are showcased much better elsewhere.


Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Novels


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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author: Mark Twain

Type: Fiction, novel

Full title: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer’s Companion)

Published: 2001 (this version), 1884 (original)

I read it: July 2015 (re-read)


Reading Mark Twain in the years my sons are born: I didn’t plan this pattern, but it happened this way. Like I did with Tom Sawyer, I knew I wanted to read Huck Finn in the heat of summer and at just the right pace. That is, I went for a chapter a day, trying not to fall too far behind and push too far ahead. These books are very episodic, and work wonderfully in small doses.

Mark Twain simply works magic between his language, scenery, point-of-view, and social commentary. This last is hugely successful and humorous because it’s told only through Huck’s honest eyes. The first time I read this book I hadn’t yet discovered skepticism, so this time some passages shown through even sharper than before. Like when Huck is listening to Tom rattle off a mishmash of ideas he got from books, and observes that “it had all the marks of a Sunday school.” Many of the early chapters display Huck’s ignorance and half-formed logic, as well as the varied superstitions of Jim.

Other great episodes that skewer the times include the ongoing feud between the Sheperdsons and Grangerfords. Presumably mocking the larger-than-life feuds of the American west, these families go at each other for no apparent reason other than tradition, until bodies lie in the wake. They put aside their differences to meet for Sunday sermon, which is “all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness” as well as “faith, and good works, and free grace, and preforeordestination, and I won’t know what all.” It’s hilarious and tinged with sorrow, like the entire aspect of Jim’s predicament.

Jim is a pretty complicated character, who I don’t really have the scholarship to say much about with confidence. The front half of the book is the best because of Huck and Jim’s relationship, and everything we learn about Jim is through Huck’s own prejudices and budding ethical realizations. Huck’s great dilemma is that he is the lowest class of white person whose minimal education includes strict ideological concepts based on social strata and religious purity. Because his society can’t get right and wrong straight, he spins in circles trying to decide how to act, until he decides he will just have to “do whichever come handiest at the time.” Further on, when he fully commits to helping to free Jim it is (he thinks) at the cost of his very soul, and so he consigns himself to hell. And because in his black and white world a person is either a sinner or a saint, he figures “as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.” Huck doesn’t think of himself as a savior for helping Jim, but quite the opposite: just a low-down kid trying to come to terms with himself in a dangerous world.

A lot of the book is a straightforward adventure, with some seriousness and a whole lot of humor thrown in. Huck doesn’t really find full redemption or growth, but picks up several nuggets of wisdom along the way. I like when he ponders small acts of kindness:

It was only a little thing to do, and no trouble; and it’s the little things that smoothes people’s roads the most, down here below; it would make Mary Jane comfortable, and it wouldn’t cost nothing.

In the middle third, he also quickly sees through the quackery of the king and the duke, “them two frauds,” the tireless hucksters who force themselves into Huck and Jim’s company. The whole plotline is pretty funny, with the con men working various exploits (“First they done a lecture on temperance; but they didn’t make enough for them both to get drunk on.”) while Huck tries to figure out a way to shake them off. He knows what they do is wrong, and regrets being involved: “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”

The stint with the king and the duke is keen cultural history, but goes on a bit too long than is good for the story. The worst parts are how it puts Jim completely on the sidelines, and makes Huck an observer or bystander throughout many chapters. And then of course right when this part of the adventure is over, we get to the much-reviled ending chapters and the return of Tom Sawyer.

I don’t have a lot of strong feelings on the ending, which is funny at times because of the elaborately planned prison break of Jim, though it’s kind of a one-trick joke that just goes on and on. The big criticism is that it takes the serious situation of Jim’s slavery and makes a mockery of it. I see this point, but considering that they really do have to escape and end up getting into danger, it holds some drama. The downside for me is more mundane and is the exact same issue as the king and duke chapters: it becomes Tom’s story, with Huck a gullible follower and Jim a plot device.

Regardless, this is a still a fantastic read. At the end of this Modern Library Classics edition are some short essays from various minds throughout the decades, such as T.S. Eliot, as well as an extra passage that was not included in the original novel but still fits the story. The reason this version really shines, though, is the introduction by George Saunders. I waited to read it until after I finished the book, and indeed it would work better as an afterword because it gets into so many specifics. It’s a funny, honest, and illuminating piece of writing that really helps to bring the book into focus for modern readers. And it almost makes you want to start all over again from Chapter 1.

Finally, a few words have to be said about a couple author notes right after the title page. First there’s the clarification of the various dialects explored, which are no fewer than eight. That’s pretty amazing. Then there’s the NOTICE, BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Well I guess that shoots to hell the whole point of this review. Another point to Twain.

So step outside when it’s sticky, high summer. Cicadas buzz and greenery attempts to overtake everything. Find a chair, get some ice water. Do a chapter a day, and get lost in vibrant Americana.

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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Novels


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Author: Emma Donoghue

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2010

I read it: June 2015


Be sure you’re ready before reading this book. My wife enjoyed it several years ago, but now we have a kid. I read it with our little guy in mind, and it was sickening in a can’t-stop-reading kind of way. I also started it the week I had a cold, so the first half of the book was a rough go. If you haven’t read it, Room is about a five-year-old boy raised only in a single room. Just be ready for that. For those who have read it, let’s discuss.

This book is like two stories in one, split right down the middle. Thank goodness for that, because I needed the rush of relief after the first half. Even though it was tough at times, I think what made it tolerable was the character of the mother (“Ma”). She was never abusive to her son, and you could argue that the boy, Jack, lived a pretty decent life (mostly because he didn’t realize what he was missing out on). The book would have been simply intolerable if Ma was any level of crazy, though that would have been justified under the circumstances. The way it’s written, the reader gets to align with the mother-son duo against the all-too-realistic villain of Old Nick. It’s highly claustrophobic, yet there’s hope.

In the first half, the chapter called “Unlying” is the most fascinating. Through Jack’s narration, we learn his trains of thought, such as “But when I want something I want it always, like chocolates, I never ate a chocolate too many times.” Plenty of his observations, like this one, could come from the brain of any young child. It’s when Ma has to revise her stories to teach him about the real, tangible world outside that he struggles: “So hospitals are real too, and motorbikes. My head’s going to burst from all the new things I have to believe.” In this sequence there’s also a great riff on a Bible line that’s perfectly constructed: “When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Part two is a lot less propulsive, because it’s about their life after the escape. But it’s still interesting to read about how such a scenario might play out. Jack’s world expands into hugeness, and in some ways he handles it better than Ma. He’s tentative about the unknown, but grasps at wisdom when he admits, “I don’t want there to be bad stories and me not know them.” He sees the value, the intrinsic contribution to his survival, of accepting truth over lies.

It’s a moving book, but you’ve got to tread lightly. It’s probably one that’s best to read well before or long after you have a young child.

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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Novels


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The Metamorphosis

Author: Franz Kafka

Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Published: 1996 (this version), 1913-1919 (original stories)

I read it: June 2015


This is the story that begins: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”

I must have never read it before, though I thought I had. I guess I just had vague impressions of the general plot. It was surprising to me that the story of Gregor Samsa’s fateful change took place in his home, amongst his parents and sister, instead of alone in a hotel room (he is a traveling salesman after all). The story is not really about the metamorphosis (or “transformation” as it’s repeatedly referred to) itself, so we are spared the gruesome details that would make the tale similar to the movie The Fly. It’s more about the aftermath of the change.

Family and work are the key issues here. The first sad realization on the reader’s part is how Gregor’s main worry upon witnessing his changed form is that he is late for work. Obviously the guy is stressed to the max about his station in life, and reasonably so because one of his supervisors shows up in person to come see why Gregor didn’t report that morning. To think that this would be a primary concern makes me squirm more than the bug thing. Gregor also has bitterness about supporting his family (“If I didn’t hold myself back because of my parents, I would have quit long ago”) and places some blame on them for the big picture. When bug-Gregor finally emerges from his room for the first time, he is chased away in disgust by his father. It’s a sorry sight.

At least his sister is nice to him…at first. Gradually, the family must provide for themselves while figuring out how to house and feed the bug in the room, and the strain is palpable. The sister loses patience, the mother retains some hope but slips into dreamlike despair, and the father hardens his hatred more and more. This seems the true interpretation of the title: the metamorphosis of a family who cannot connect with one of their own. It’s made more painful because Gregor can hear their human words perfectly, though he can’t communicate back, and they don’t know that he can understand them. He retains some semblance of his old self; for example, he is moved by music, and “was he an animal if music stirred him that way?” In the end, he gracefully realizes that he is indeed a burden on his family and resigns himself to death. The family’s attitude and fortunes lift after his departure, which is both refreshing and sorrowful.

“The Metamorphosis” is a unique nightmare, and realistic in its exploration of an unrealistic premise. What about the other Kafka in this collection? The first, and weakest, is “The Judgment.” It’s about a young man (named Georg, hmm) with, you guessed it, family issues. Specifically, he has a strained relationship with his aging father, and is apparently keeping secrets from him. The father finds out, reveals his knowledge dramatically, then supposedly sentences his son to a watery death. The son is so distraught by this revelation that he hurls himself from a bridge. Either I wasn’t paying attention, or this story truly doesn’t make sense.

“In the Penal Colony” is the only other story of significant length besides “The Metamorphosis,” and it’s intriguing enough. It’s steeped in concepts of justice and cultural evolution, featuring a torturer-executioner whose motto is “Guilt is always beyond doubt.” A foreign explorer is exposed to the workings of the torture machine in an anthropological Raphael Nonsenso kind of way. He struggles to make up his mind about the scenario, musing that “It’s always a ticklish thing to interfere in someone else’s affairs in some decisive way.” This story actually has an ending less dark than I was expecting, which I applauded after my initial nervousness.

The final two entries are short and sweet. “A Country Doctor” is a single unbroken paragraph about the titular doctor who must constantly ask himself, “what do the people expect of me?” At its most basic, it’s a comment on man’s inability to control outside forces, and the despair found in that realization. It reminds me of that show A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which, come to think of it, is quite Kafkaesque. (Yes! I had a chance to use the phrase!)

The book wraps up with “A Report to an Academy,” which is kind of a reverse “Metamorphosis” with a similarly intriguing first line: “Gentlemen of the Academy: You have honored me with your invitation to submit a report to the Academy about my former life as an ape.” Yep, this beast was once a full-on ape, is captured by humans, and pragmatically starts acting more like them in order to eventually get free. His intellect improves though his body plan seemingly remains the same, and he acquires speech skills. It’s a pretty thinky piece that stays in speech format, and it’s another that’s not nearly as dark as the reader might expect.

So Kafka was good in these small doses. A friend mentioned that a lot of his intention might be lost in translation, which made me perk up at this note by Stanley Appelbaum in this particular version:

These new translations, in idiomatic modern American English, attempt to be more complete and correct than the old British versions, in which outright errors sometimes cloud the meaning to a serious degree, slight omissions occur, idioms are misunderstood, and Kafka’s humor is often negated by pallid paraphrases of wording that is very sprightly in the original German.

Ha. Translator battles.


Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Short stories


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Isaac’s Storm

Author: Erik Larson

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

Published: 1999

I read it: June 2015


“If I was to write forever, I could not give you an idea of it—a total darkness all above; the sea on fire, running as it were in Alps, or Peaks of Teneriffe; (mountains are too common an idea;) the wind roaring louder than thunder (absolutely no flight of imagination,) the whole made more terrible, if possible, by a very uncommon kind of blue lightning.”

This was Lt. Benjamin Archer’s attempt to describe experiencing a hurricane near the Caribbean in 1780. Erik Larson spends an entire book trying to put the reader in this type of situation, and he does so to great success.

His principal subject is Isaac Cline, head weatherman in Galveston, Texas at the dawn of the 1900s. By Larson’s account, Cline was a capable, hardworking, and scientific man, though he was at the mercy of the twisty bureaucracy of the U.S. Weather Bureau. This organization’s shortsightedness, coupled with the general pride and optimism of this point in history, contributed to Cline underestimating a devastating hurricane that ruined Galveston on September 8, 1900.

True to its subtitle, this book does have a lot to say about the time period. Larson constantly reminds us of the overconfidence and wondrous attitude that people (especially those privileged enough to be entrepreneurs or hold positions of authority) had about the United States. The Weather Bureau in particular employed several bad apples, such as the chief at the time, Willis Moore, whose obsession with both his own career and American nationalism caused him to wage a campaign against cooperating with Cuba, a country with a long history of hurricane forecasting and tracking.

The third part of the subtitle, the deadliest hurricane in history (American history at least), is framed against a broader history of oceanic storms throughout recorded time. This sets the stage for the specific story of the Galveston storm that took 6,000 lives at the lower estimate. The first half of the book dips in and out of various timelines and subjects, while small chapters about the Galveston hurricane illustrate how and when the elements are brewing. The second half comes into clearer focus when it narrates various people living in the city the day the storm struck. At first, the residents are anxious yet amused and excited, having witnessed coastal storms before. Kids played in the streets as rain fell and people gathered on the beach to watch the sky change. Eventually, news traveled inland that the storm was tearing up structures along the beach, though many people who did not see it with their own eyes refused to believe the possibilities.

As one mother recalled:

“For a while even ladies were wading in the water, thinking it was fun. The children had a grand time, picking up driftwood and other things that floated down the street.”

A little while later she was updated on the status and something shifted.

“Then it wasn’t fun anymore.”

The shivers this line brings is a testament to Larson’s structure and pacing. The book is part history, part adventure, part biography, part horror story, and always interesting. After all, this was a storm in which “one man reported dodging a giant piano embedded in the crest of a wave.” It’s an unimaginable situation, and you can’t tear your eyes and thoughts away from the ghosts who haunt the pages. Isaac himself suffered personal tragedy in the event, and not knowing exactly what the tragedy is until Larson reveals it adds yet another layer of anticipation to the tale. (Larson crafts his book’s title around one convention whereby storms get named after popular victims.) This piece of writing is an absolute feat.

In his notes at the end of the book, the author claims: “It is one thing to write Great Man history, quite another to explore the lives of history’s little men.” I thought this was a great way to put it. The idea of reading a presidential biography bores me to tears, but I’ve easily fallen sway to accounts of the strange tales of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z or the crew of the Essex from In the Heart of the Sea. I seem to rank the skills of these non-fiction authors quite high as compared to their peers in fiction, and Larson is easily among the best storytellers I’ve read in recent years.

Music corner: Songs I enjoy related to this content include Built to Spill’s “The Weather,” Brian Fallon’s “No Weather,” and Brandi Carlile’s recent “The Eye.” But of course the closest thing to a soundtrack would be Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Its ups and downs, squirming guitar paths, and overall awesomeness can take you places where storms build and explode.



Posted by on July 17, 2015 in Non-fiction single subject


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