Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Guillaume Morissette "I Am My Own Betrayal"




I read this book instead of watching the made-for-TV movie I was supposed to watch for a class. I loved this book. And by “loved it” I mean it imbued me with a whimsical sort of morose I don’t often get to experience, but always enjoy.
My favorite poem was “I have girly arms and I mean it.” My favorite lines in that poem were “I am so angry at my girly arms I could punch my dad in the dick, / which would have no effect because I have girly arms.” There is a bitter-funny element to this poem that reminds me of a story someone told me about a famous philosopher who, while reading Kafka, fell to the floor crying in hysterical laughter. Guillaume Morissette is very good at titling his poems (this probably involves the same skill-set as twitter, which is why he has such a nice twitter). I am terrible at titling my poems and always take the easy way out (which is probably why both my poem titles and twitter suck).
I recommend this book for the following occasions:
1. Taking the Megabus to a place you’d rather not be (Christmas is coming boys and girls)
2. During the period between when you get to a shitty class and when it starts.
3. Really anytime.
Real Talk:
One thing I find exciting about what is going on in literature right now is its break with realism, which has dominated fiction since the age of Flaubert. Morissette’s characters say bleak and ironic statements like “Circle of life, straightforward line of death. And I don’t care because I’ll probably be dead by then. So there’s no point in having kids anymore, we’re the last generation. I’m the last generation. Have a pepsi.” I realize some people do not enjoy this style, but I personally love this kind of absurdist writing. I do not feel it distracts or retreats from reality, but allows us to realize the unspoken absurdity of reality. We all sit around having Pepsis (I’m actually having a Coke right now, but same idea) and making small talk while we hurtle into environmental catastrophe and possible annihilation. Guillaume is playing with the apathetic auto-destructiveness of society in an effective way.
I look forward to seeing Guillaume’s progression, and encourage everyone to buy his book for themselves (or a loved one, Christmas is coming boys and girls) and help alleviate his “extreme poverty.”

Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore (海辺のカフカ Umibe no Kafuka)



            Since it was first published in 2002, “Kafka on the Shore” has been highly regarded. It follows two separate but interconnected stories. In one, a 15 year-old boy who calls himself “Kafka Takamura” runs away from his dismal Tokyo life and the tyrannical rule of his father. Kafka hopes to find his mother who abandoned him when he was very young, taking along his adopted sister. The second follows Nakata, an old man who was rendered mentally retarded after a mysterious accident in his youth. The accident cause Nakata to lose most of his mental faculties, but gave him the ability to speak to cats. The two soon become embroiled in the bizarre occurrences Murakami is known for. Kafka finds his father’s oedipal prophecy coming true. Nakata’s simple life falls apart after meeting a mysterious man who calls himself “Johnnie Walker.”
            This was not one of my favorite of Murakami’s books. That’s not to say it wasn't good. “Kafka on the Shore” is a page-turner, with plenty of the magical realism, bizarre circumstances, and genre-melting madness that makes him one of the most dynamic and important writers of our age. It is, as many critics have noted, a kind of modern-day Greek tragedy. It also has strong metaphysical, science fiction, and romantic tendencies. I am a great lover of genre-breaking. There is also a good amount of suspense. Things seem to pop up out of nowhere, each more bizarre than the next.
 However, I was rather let down by the ending. Most of the book was held together by a feeling of dread. The two plots will be resolved and when they do it seems like it could only be traumatic and fantastical. However in this case it felt like there were still too many questions left to be answered. Kafka’s story in particular left something to be desired.
            Hardcore fans of Murakami will enjoy this novel immensely. However, I would not recommend it for first time readers.

Friday, November 9, 2012

T.C. Boyle – When the Killing’s Done




What does it mean to be compassionate? How does one determine the righteous path? T.C. Boyle masterfully explores the ambiguity of morality in this tragic novel. The book follows two animal advocates with violently opposing views. Alma Boyd Takesue is a biologist for the National Park Service spearheading a campaign to kill of the rat and pig populations of California’s Channel Islands in order to allow the indigenous fauna to flourish. This puts her at odds with Dave LaJoy, a more radical animal advocate who believes every animal life is as valuable as the next. Lajoy sees Takesue’s plan as barbarous and cruel while she sees him as ignorant and insane.

As the park service plan moves forward both Alma and Dave find their lives completely turned upside down. Boyle masterfully plays their lives off of each other. Their personal struggles eerily mirror each other and inevitably lead them towards increasingly violent confrontations. Boyle balances action and internal monologue well, fleshing out full characters while still moving the plot along. I got very emotionally involved in this book, throwing it down after traumatic events transpire and eagerly ignoring my work to greedily turn more pages.

There is a powerful undercurrent of violence and powerlessness that cuts through this novel. For example, the following passage is an account of Lajoy’s girlfriend Anise’s childhood on an isolate ranch on one of the Channel Islands:
She got to the lamb within seconds – it was right there, no more than fifty feet away – kicking at the black sheen of the wings and the quick reptilian stab of the slick bloodied beaks, but she was too late, the birds bounding away in short contemptuous hops till they got wings under them and glided off while the lamb thrashed in the grass. She watched it shudder along its length, attempting to lift its head, thrusting out its legs for balance, but its eyes were gone and the pale drum of its abdomen was sheeted in red.
The sea plays an important role; Alma’s life has been defined by it up to this point as it claimed both the life of her grandfather and her father. Lajoy is an avid sailor who will find his life increasingly shaped by the sea’s volatile nature. Fate is at work here, fate in the cruel Greek sense of Moirai: an inevitable turning gyre of tragedy that cannot be avoided. I very much enjoyed the ominous sensation I got while reading the book. It is definitely a masterful piece of writing. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Anne Elizabeth Moore (Ed.) – The Best American Comics, 2007



I was very impressed with Editor Anne Elizabeth Moore’s selection in this volume. Moore is a well-known journalist and feminist activist, and this shines through beautifully. Comics have often suffered from being hyper-masculine, misogynistic, and (in the case of American comics) distressingly stuck on superheroes. Moore has wisely chosen to steer clear of superheroes, and focus on highlighting the works of artists who are making interesting and innovative comics from many points of view. To doubters of the comic’s literary credibility, this book should stand as a testament to how poignant, funny, tragic, and beautiful comics can be
Some pieces I greatly enjoyed while others fell short. That is the great thing about anthologies, if done well (like this one) they have a little something for everyone. If anything, I was impressed with the variety of voices in this book. There are young writers and legends (such as R. Crumb). There is variety in nationality, gender, and race. It is wonderful to see such a broad spectrum represented.
Now for that bad news. I did not enjoy Kim Deitch’s “No Midgets in Midgetville.” I found it visually confusing and aesthetically unappealing, though whimsical and inventive. I have always felt ambivalent about Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” At times it is a gorgeous piece, filled with touching moments, but at time can become woefully verbose and tries too hard to make meaning. I found Lynda Barry’s “What’s Happening Maryls” off-putting and dull.
 However, there were some absolute gems in this anthology as well, whose inventiveness, story-telling, and art were embodiments of what makes comics so great.
1.      Charles Burns, “Black Hole”
I have read the long-form version of “Black Hole” probably five times. During the 1970’s, young teenagers begin to contract a (mostly) sexually-transmitted disease. The afflicted develop horrible deformities. It explores the often terrifying nature of puberty and sexual awakening majestically. The artwork is visually arresting and unbelievably powerful. This will go down as one of the great accomplishments in comics.
2.      Anders Nilsen “Dinner and a Walk”
The beautiful, minimalistic drawing of this piece perfectly frames the story which follows reverses the typical nature scene. Instead of a human observing and interpreting the behavior of an animal, a bird gazes at a human boy dressed only in his underwear. The bird judges the human, who exhibits some strange behavior.
3.      Adrian Tomine, “Optic Nerve”
There is something very sixties about Tomine’s flat black-and-white drawings. The action in this excerpt follows a young man as he strikes up a casual relationship with a young woman. The main character is forced to confront their differences in race, socio-economic status, and sexuality.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

George R. R. Martin – A Storm of Swords (A Song of Ice and Fire #3)



The third installment of Martin’s complex, fantastical series “A Song of Ice and Fire” was a big improvement from the last installment. Martin expertly navigates plays with the reader’s emotions and creates strong, complex characters. It is this ability that sets him above many other fantasy writers. He is also willing to do something most authors refuse to. Martin is not afraid to kill characters off, and in fact does so regularly. What seems the logical or desired outcome melts away into chaos over and over leaving the reader devastated and desperate to know what will happen.
In “A Storm of Swords” war has reached nearly every corner of the globe. The entire continent of Westeros is in shambles as factions vie for allies and land. The Stark family desperately tries to gain independence from the King’s Landing, where House Lannister has taken control. The late King Baratheon’s brother Stannis tries to recover from a desperate defeat to take his place on the iron throne. The Black Brothers fight the rise of otherworldly beings who seek to destroy all of mankind. Meanwhile, Daenerys wins victories in the eastern continent, slowly edging her way towards a war with all of Westeros. This leads to a world of intrigue, plotting, and murder where no one can be trusted.
 I honestly have no idea how the story will turn out. With so many factions and such a volatile world, anything could happen. Martin is brilliant in this regard. He has not given the audience one person to root for, but many. As much as the reader may want the Lannisters defeated, they hate Stannis (the rightful heir). As much as they want a Stark victory, that would dash the hopes of Queen Daenerys who is desperate for revenge and the iron throne. As much as they love Tyrion, they hate his Lannister family. To complicate matters, the previously flat Jamie Lannister begins to turn into a most interesting fellow.
There are so plot twists and unbelievable events in this book that many time I had to throw it down in disbelief. “A Storm of Swords” is a thrilling read that will keep your eyes glued to the page. is no doubt in my mind that “A Song of Ice and Fire” will go down in history as one of the great achievements of fantasy literature. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Yukio Mishima – Temple of the Golden Pavilion


The story of Japanese author Yukio Mishima is well-known. A phenomenally popular author at the start of the post-war period, Mishima was also a popular actor and model. Later in his life he developed a strong nationalistic philosophy and founded “Tatenokai.” Members of Tatenokai were trained by Mishima to protect the Japanese Emperor and traditional Japan. These activities culminated in an attempted coup. When the coup failed Mishima famously committed seppuku.
“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” is Mishima’s most famous work. Based on a true story, the book follows a young Buddhist acolyte studying at Japan’s famous Golden Pavilion temple. I first began interested in the book after seeing portions of it acted out in the film “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas. I will include a clip from the movie at the end of this post.  
Aided by his strange club-footed friend, the sadistic Kashiwagi, the main character Mizoguchi becomes obsessed with the concept of beauty. As a child Mizoguchi fell in love with the Golden Pavilion. “The image of the Golden Temple as Father had described it to me that dominated my heart.” When he moves to the Golden Pavilion he becomes less impressed with it. Its permenance begins to bother him. After some time he becomes convinced that the safe shadow of the Pavilion is the reason for everyone’s “mediocrity.”
Kashiwagi convinces Mizoguchi that impermanent beauty is the only true beauty. “The uselessness of beauty, the fact that the beauty which had passed through his body left no mark there whatsoever…it was this that Kashiwagi loved.” It is this realization that causes Mizoguchi to burn the temple.
            Although Mishima does give these teenagers a bit too much philosophical credit, this is a well-executed novel. It is a brief and compelling look into a fascinating, and sick, mind. Strange images and corrupt priests help the novel not feel like a graduate philosophy thesis while still being intellectually stimulating. I found I could hardly put this novel down.
            One has to wonder how much of the philosophy discussed in this book was close to Mishima’s own heart. In some places you can almost hear the heartbeat of the violence that is to come growing stronger. This is definitely a must read for anyone with an interest in Japanese literature or anyone who enjoys a highly erudite novel. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Susan Rowson – Charlotte Temple



The first bestseller in America, “Charlotte Temple” follows the moral downfall of the eponymous character. The impeccably gorgeous and virtuous Charlotte wants nothing more than to please her parents and live a quiet, controlled life. That all changes when she meets Montraville, a dashing British soldier. She is then coerced, thanks to some meddling from her amoral French governess, to elope with him and sail to America. However Montraville only sleeps with her and does not marry her.  She, predictably, is soon pregnant and Montraville quickly skedaddles away. There she is, a picture of fallen virtue and lost youth. If only she had just listened to her parents…
If there is one thing 18th century literary critics and I agree on, it is that this book is truly awful. The writing itself is poor, with many breaks in narration and awkward points. The characters are stereotypical and poorly developed and you can bet anytime anyone has a French name they are evil. The scenes are mostly a sad mixture of awkward and dull. Take for example this scene which takes place right after Charlotte has consented to go away with Montraville:
“ …feeling her own treacherous heart too much inclined to accompany them, the hapless Charlotte, in an evil hour, consented that the next evening they should bring a chaise to the end of the town, and that she would leave her friends, and throw herself entirely on the protection of Montraville. "But should you," said she, looking earnestly at him, her eyes full of tears, "should you, forgetful of your promises, and repenting the engagements you here voluntarily enter into, forsake and leave me on a foreign shore—" "Judge not so meanly of me," said he. "The moment we reach our place of destination, Hymen shall sanctify our love; and when I shall forget your goodness, may heaven forget me."
I think that pretty much says it all.
Yet it doesn’t, because I have another serious concern with this book. While this presumably reflects the moral ideas of 18th century Britain, it ruffles by 21st century feathers. Rowson lays out a tale of a girl who, by seeking sexual pleasure, loses everything, including her life. The book hammers into you again and again that the only way to have any value is to be submissive to one’s parents and virginal. It goes so far as to say that the only honorable part about a woman is her hymen. I am strongly against this sentiment. While Montraville is horrible, and Charlotte quite foolish, premarital sex is not a one-way ticket to hell.
If this book has left me with anything, it is the clear conviction that if I were born in America’s early years I would have been hanged as a witch by age 15. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

George R. R. Martin -- “A Clash of Kings”



*SPOILER ALERT* If you haven’t read the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire read no further! Instead scroll to the bottom of this page for a fairly-amusing picture.

This book should have been called “Waiting for a Clash.” A great deal of the book  is spent with one character or another brooding and planning an attack on another, either with a grand military or with wits alone. It is at once compelling and excruciatingly slow depending on the chapter. Each major character finds themselves in a precarious position where they can trust no one and where they must desperately seek allies to survive. The navigation is slow and tense. While the reader desperately wants to know whether the Lannister’s will retain power and if Robb Stark will be able to become the King in the North, Martin instead focuses much of the action on the squabbles of other houses. The book’s purpose seems to be to align everything for an all-out clash, but the wait is difficult.
Interestingly, Catelyn Tully and Tyrion Lannister find themselves on parallel journeys. Each is forced to play peacemaker and alliance forger for their families. Both go from one nest of vipers to the next. Catelyn must attempt to keep both the cold Stannis Baratheon and the arrogant Renly Baratheon from turning on her family or each other. Tyrion must try to retain order in a King’s Landing, contending not only with a starving and violent peasantry and opposing armies but the psychotic boy-king Joffrey and his vicious mother Cersei. Dowager queen Cersei Lannister is by far the least likable character of the first book and she does not increase her popularity in “A Clash of Kings.” Instead she grows increasingly cruel and psychotic, as paranoia and hunger for power consume any sense of reason she may have had left.
The breakout character of the book is by far Theon Greyjoy. While Theon was previously a blip on the map, he explodes in this book. After ten years as a ward in Winterfell, Theon returns home to take his place as heir to the throne of the Iron Islands, a cluster of nearly-inhospitable rocks. When his father and sister greet him with derision Theon determines to prove himself and the results are unimaginable. I sincerely hope Martin spends more time on the Iron Islands. I was fascinated by the local deity: “The Drowned God.” This is a god that was drowned in the unforgiving oceans surrounding the Iron Islands by a wicked storm god. This only strengthens the islanders’ belief as “what is dead may never die.”
If you enjoyed “A Game of Thrones” you will certainly be compelled to read “A Clash of Kings.” It serves its place in the series’ narrative, but do not expect a stand-alone story. This is for readers of “A Song of Ice and Fire” only. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84




Many friends have given me rave reviews of Murakami’s works over the years, both friends who are literature addicts (like myself) and others who barely pick up one book a year. Needless to say, I had to try out his reality-bending worlds for myself.
                1Q84 bounces back between Aomame (whose name means “green pea pod” in Japanese) and Tengo. Though both are lonely 30 year-old Japanese professionals the overlap between them initially seems to end there. Tengo is a cram school math teacher. He is hired on to ghost edit a fantastical story entitled Air Chrysalis written by a beautiful, but strange, 17 year-old girl. Aomame is a personal trainer who moonlights as an assassin, killing of perpetrators of domestic abuse.
                Their connection becomes clear as both characters, for their own reasons, investigate a mysterious religious cult. As the book progresses Tengo and Aomame get closer to the truth and to finding each other. They also begin to suspect they are living in a world no their own; a world where there are two moons and supernatural beings known as “Little People” may be wreaking havoc. Aomame entitles this world “1Q84” instead of the calendar year of “1984.”
                By combining realism with fantastical elements Murakami creates a universe where reality is hard to discern and impossible things lie just beneath the surface. The stable, clear lives of Aomame and Tengo are suddenly swept away despite their best efforts to stay completely in control.
                Murakami has an eerie, wondrous style unlike any other. I am reminded of a pristine winter landscape with a skittish deer at the center. It is beautiful, captivating, yet tense and fragile. Despite wildly varying parts everything seems natural. In 1Q84 Murakami’s style is impeccable and wrapped around a plot as riveting as it is bizarre (and it is quite bizarre). 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Marvel – Wolverine: Blood & Sorrow



Wolverine is a pop culture staple. Whether hopping around your child’s TV screen as an animation or swaggering in a Hugh Jackman incarnation, the yellow and blue uniform with jutting blades is almost instantly recognizable. What has made Wolverine stand out above his fellow X-Men is his dark past and morbid personality. The anthology “Wolverine Blood & Sorrow” collects four of the darkest comics starring him. The trade paperback (as such things are called) is heavily weighted in the early-2000’s. Two of the stories originate in 2006, another in 2003. The remaining story is from 1991.
                I picked up this book at a local comic-con some months ago and had very low expectations for it. It was from a bargain bin and the cover art left much to be desired. It looked cheap and thrown together. I am also not a particularly strong fan of Wolverine. However I could not turn down such an inexpensive collection and was pleasantly surprised to find some great storytelling within.
                The first comic was originally in X-Men Unlimited #12. A popular series, each comic tells short vignettes that take place between the major points covered in X-Men proper. This one, entitled “The Healing,” seems like the opening to an action film. Wolverine lies surrounded by wolves in the great Canadian Arctic nothingness horrifically wounded. Though his powers allow him to heal, he is still weak and in great pain. The writing (by Stuart Moore) is clear and compelling, not an easy task in a story that contains nothing but a man bleeding. C.P. Smith’s art mostly satisfies, with strong palette choices and rough, edgy strokes.
                The second comic, “The Package,” dates from 1991’s Wolverine #41 and is a bit of a train wreck. The writing in the story is amusing. Wolverine has to transport the infant daughter of an assassinated African leader to the border without falling into the hands of General Lago, a Kony-like figure. While watching Wolverine play babysitter is amusing, and the story is relatively well-done, the art is a mess. Also by C.P. Smith, many panels contain far too many lines and scribbles, obscuring the action while othes have big empty spaces that likewise fail to do the scene justice. Onomatopoeia graces far too many panels and some of them (Snikt! Buddabuddabudda! Kassh!) would be better suited to Adam West’s portrayal of Batman than anything else.
                Fortunately, Smith’s art had greatly improved by the time of Giant-Size Wolverine #1 (2006). The art has a haunting, Lovecraftian feel with a palette relying heavily on eerie greens and sickening browns. The story is a big confusing out of context, but David Lapham nevertheless turns an interesting tale.
By far my favorite story in the collection is the final one: 2003’s “Wolverine #49.” Wolverine is sent on a last-minute Christmas shopping errand by Kitty Pryde, a younger X-Men able to move through solid matter. Of course, the trip quickly turns sinister as a violent cult attacks and takes a young heiress hostage. The villain is wily, insane, and fabulous to watch. Wolverine is at his cynical best and the artists due a great job of translating the blinding fluorescent lights and fake cheerfulness of a mall at Christmastime.
I wouldn’t recommend this book for newcomers to the comic scene. It requires too much prior knowledge of the Marvel universe. For loves of Wolverine (especially those on tight budgets) this is a fair buy.


For those of you who would like an introduction into X-Men I highly recommend “Origins,” the critically celebrated explanation of Wolverine’s birth and childhood. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Norman Mailer - "The Executioner's Song"



             
Norman Mailer would have had a masterpiece on his hands if this book was about half its length. At over a thousand pages long, The Executioner’s Song is an imposing tome. The book follows the infamous murderer Gary Gilmore, who was the first man executed in the United States after it was made legal again in 1976.
                Mailer’s intention in writing the book is unclear. The first half, the better half, wants to understand what drove Gilmore to his senseless crime. It starts shortly before Gilmore’s release from a lengthy prison sentence for armed robbery. Having spent over half his life in jail, Gilmore has trouble adjusting. He begins to drink, fight, and generally piss people off. He also falls madly in love with Nicole Baker, a twenty-year old with two kids, three ex-husbands, and a boat-load of troubles. Their stormy relationship and Gilmore’s pride in being a hardened “con” drive him, in a fit of post-break up rage, to shoot and kill two working men in separate robberies.
                The description in this part of the book is impeccable. Mailer finds ominous threads woven in seemingly innocuous objects and interactions. This is what sets Mailer apart from other crime writers and what makes the first part of the book a delight. Whereas other authors fetishize the crime, spewing blood and guts all over their pages, Mailer focuses on the little things that surround such shocking event. This reminds readers why these crimes are so terrible, they involve real people not movie-of-the-week monsters.
                Perhaps my favorite passage in the entire book is during Gilmore’s first murder. After robbing a gas station Gilmore forces Max Jensen, a new father and devout Mormon, to the bathroom:

It was a bathroom with green tiles that came to the height of your chest, and tan-painted walls. The floor, six feet by eight feet, was laid in dull gray tiles. A rack for paper towels on the wall had Towl Savr printed on it. The toilet had a split seat. An overhead light was in the wall.
                Gilmore brought the Automatic to Jensen’s head. “This one is for me,” he said, and fired.
                “This one is for Nicole,” he said, and fired again. The body reacted each time.

However, after Gilmore’s trial The Executioner’s Song takes a drastic dive in quality. The book becomes a series of squabbles between an endless barrage of lawyers and reporters. It is hard to tell characters like Schiller from characters like Stagner and even harder to care about any of them. Part of me wishes I had just stopped reading after Gilmore’s sentencing because everything else seemed a waste of time. Oddly, in this section Mailer takes no position on whether or not the death penalty is appropriate. Instead his narrative appears to rely on suspense over whether Gilmore will be executed or not. This is incredibly foolish as Gilmore is more famous than this book and is famous specifically for being executed.
                I do not know if Mailer is simply trying to create a compendium extolling every event in the entire story, or if he is trying to say something meaningful about the death penalty. Either way it is not particularly satisfying.
                If any readers are looking for a meaningful exploration of the death penalty I would suggest either the 2011 film “Into the Abyss” by Werner Herzog or the 1957 essay Reflections on the Guillotine by Albert Camus.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

George R.R. Martin - “A Game of Thrones”



The much lauded TV series seduced me into reading “A Game of Thrones,” the first book in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (of which there are currently seven). I was not disappointed. Martin manages to create a fascinating high fantasy world without falling into the pit so many fantasy author’s tumble down into: he does not fall in love with his own setting. There is far more going on than gory battles and demonic wraiths, this is a story about the strength of family and the alluring, violent world of power.
The book centers around members of three important families in a world where summer last up to a decade and winter twice as long. Bids for power are just as raucous as the climate. The land is comprised of an assortment of kings ruling under a high king, surrounded by free cities, a mysterious land where men originated, and the lands of the cruel horse people the Dothraki. The three families: the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryen each attempt to grab or maintain power from their own unique positions. The Starks, led by the honorable yet troubled Eddard Stark, rule the northernmost kingdom and are at the narratives heart. The Lannisters are a cruel and cunning folk who are most shown through the eyes of Tyrion, the Lannister patriarch’s dwarf son who secretly despises them. The Targaryen were originally the high kings. They are a powerful people called “the dragonborn” whose military strength united the kingdoms. They also practiced incest to keep themselves “pure” which probably did them in, as their last ruler was mad and was removed from power. Poor and exiled, the two surviving Targaryen’s try to reclaim their throne by trying to curry the favor of the Dothraki.
I could hardly put this book down. Though nearly nine hundred pages long, it never seemed slow and at times felt agonizingly slow I desperately tried to learn the fate of one character of another. The characters are strong and dynamic even when villainous. Death seems to lie behind every corner and no character is safe from plots and counterplots, and most make plots of their own. Martin wisely pays attention to both those at the center of power and those at the fringe, giving voices to Eddard Stark’s bastard son, prostitutes, and elderly scholars.
The settings are strong. Martin takes the reader from the great untamed wilds of the north to the bustling, treacherous marketplaces of the free cities to the grand epicurean halls of the southern kingdoms. Geographically it is all hard to figure out. It is unclear to understand the relationship between the mainland, which comes illustrated, and the outlying continents including the Dothraki homeland. Nevertheless, the landscapes of most of these places are clear. Take for example Martin’s description of High King Robert Baratheon’s throne room:
Though the high narrow windows of the Red Keep’s cavernous throne room, the light of sunset spilled across the floor, laying dark red stripes across the walls where the heads of dragons had one hung. Now the stone was covered with hunting tapestries, vivid with greens and browns and blues, and yet it still seemed to Ned Stark that the only color in the hall was the red of blood.
                This is a must-read for anyone with an interest in fantasy and is also a good place for the curious to start (though I would recommend “Lord of the Rings” first for newbies). While it relies heavily on many of the common tropes of high fantasy (kings, wars, Norse influence) it focuses more on characters than on fantastical voyages. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games #3 , Mockingjay



              Going into the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy I wasn’t sure what to expect. Everyone I had spoken to had generally disliked the ending to the series. Some were adamant that the book was utter trash and had completely ruined the series for them. The best response I had heard was lukewarm. I expected poorly-written prose and a too happy, simple view of the world. I found the exact opposite.    
              Given that this is a young adult series I expect the majority of readers expected the clear dichotomies we have come to expect from children’s literature (and often the world). There would be a good side and a bad side with no shades of gray. The Capitol would fall and everyone would rejoice expect those naughty Capitol citizens who would be punished in a satisfying way. However, Collins did not take the easy way out.  War is never the triumph of good that we have been told it is. There is no clear good or evil, only confused humans acting out of grief, desperation, and hunger for power. Most readers went into this book expecting a glorious restoration of the American republic, but the Hunger Games has never been about idealization. It has always been a story that derives its power from being honest even when the character and the reader desperately want something, anything, to go well.
              At the end of Book 2 Katniss was rescued from another Hunger Games by an elaborate plot and whisked away to the famed District 13 while love-interest Peeta Mellark is captured by the Capitol. The district has been reported destroyed by the capital since the dark days. However this reveals itself to be a lie. The district agrees to keep quiet and not set off its nuclear weapons if the Capitol leaves them alone. Being free from the capitol’s clutches proves more bitter than sweet. First, her beloved District 12 is firebombed, killing most of the people she knows.  Katniss is constantly afraid that Peeta will be killed, a fear that grows stronger whenever she sees him appear (looking weaker and weaker) on Capitol television. Not only this, but District 13 turns out not to be the bastion of freedom and hope that the reader was hoping for. No, it is a highly controlled district where all activities are bent towards military operation and food is just as scarce as in the other districts.
              Katniss grows increasingly disillusioned with Distict 13 and the rebellion. She is furious that District 13 has watched the exploitation of others go on for so long, despite their claims that there was no other ways. This anger is only increased when she discovers that the borders of District 13 were only an afternoon’s walk away from her own. The leader of District 13 (and hence the rebellion) is just as a power hungry and cruel as the Capitol’s President Snow. The war is messy, cruel. Neither Katniss nor the reader feels any difference between the slaughter of District 12’s children and the scared children of the Capitol who are mowed down in brutal assaults. No one has purely kind intentions.
              The gritty, difficult world of Mockingjay stays true to the reality of war. There is no noble clash of good and evil, but angry, desperate humans destroying each other. I see this not as inappropriate, but fitting. So here’s to the series that gave us a heroine who wasn’t likeable and sweet, but absolutely commanded respect. Here’s to the series that reminded us that killing and violence are not to be praised. Here’s the series that refused to lie to us. 

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ahlam Mosteghanemi: “Memory in the Flesh”



              This award-winning book, first published in 1985, was the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman. Algeria is a country in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. The fallout from 150 years of French conquest has muddled what it means to be Algerian. The speaking of Arabic itself is controversial. Many consider it better than speaking French, as most people did before the revolution in 1962, but it is still a language of outsiders. Because of all this it is no wonder that “Memory in the Flesh” is a book about identity, nostalgia, and (of course) memory after the revolution.
              Khalid, the protagonist, was once a freedom fighter. Now after losing an arm and leaving Algeria, he paints pretty pictures for the French elite while living in exile in Paris. He falls in love with the daughter of someone he fought with in the revolution. Her name, perhaps not so coincidentally, is Ahlam, the same as the author’s. It is obvious the relationship isn’t going to work out, but the author makes us wait for the details.
              The book reads more like poetry. There is little emphasis on scene and dialog. Much of the book consists of poetic description and Khalid’s confessing his love within the safe confines of his mind. It can make one dizzy in the same way that love confuses and tricks the brain. Though it often comes across as beautiful, the lack of substance becomes tiring. I got burnt out about 100 pages in and had to slog through the rest.
              I realize my reaction may just be because such novels are not my cup of tea. If you are able to look past the structure, the book is a beautiful love story. It also expertly deals with the concept of “nostalgia.” Khalid is unable to deal with the present. He believed that Algeria would become a perfect world after the revolution, and is too terrified to return and realize that not much has changed except the flag.  Khalid romanticizes both his past, the city he used to live in, and Ahlam to a degree that there is no way they can live up to his expectations even if they wanted to.
              I urge my readers to use digression when approaching this novel. If you enjoy lush, continuous description this may suit you. If you need a bit of action stay away.

Note: There are multiple translations of this book. I recommend the Baria Ahmar Sreih/Peter Clark edition as it best preserves the syntactic flow. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grealy, Lucy – Autobiography of a Face


Nothing sickens the heart like a sick child. This is memoir of one such child and how her lifelong battle with normalcy. Diagnosed at age nine with Ewing’s sarcoma of the jaw and given a five percent change to survive, Lucy Grealy began a long battle with cancer and an even longer battle to reconstruct her face after parts of her jaw were removed.
          Though there are plenty of graphic descriptions of chemotherapy treatments, vomiting, and surgeries, Grealy focuses mostly on identity. At the forefront is her desire to be accepted as a human being. She unhappily is reminded again and again that this is impossible through the taunts of children or the surprise of adults at her asymmetrical, misshapen face. This passage exemplifies her long standing struggle with appearance:
“When I walked down a street or hallway, sometimes men would whistle at me from a distance, call me Baby, yell out and ask me my name…but sometimes they’d catch up with me, or I’d be forced to pass by them. Their comments would stop instantly when they saw my face, their sudden silence potent and damning” (188)
 When reality proves too unforgiving Grealy passionately embraces a world of fantasy and disassociation. She attempts to dissolve her misery through friendships with self-described “outsiders,” through complex fantasy worlds, and through writing. Her most passionate escape is in the world of horses. Their indifference to her appearance is refreshing and freeing. Yet, she stays miserable up until the end. Typically, books about people who face insurmountable odds surmount them, and this book is no exception. However, the end is slapped on and incomplete. A basic investigation of Grealy’s life reveals just how fake the “happy” ending is.
          Grealy’s life was not a journey towards self-acceptance, but hell bent on self-destruction. She attempted suicide throughout her life (which is conveniently left out of the book). She neglects to mention that talking and eating were both incredibly difficult for her. And, perhaps most tellingly, she omits her addiction to drugs which started with prescription OxyContin.  Ann Patchett, author of “Bel Canto” and friend of Grealy, said that she “had a nearly romantic relationship with Death. She had beaten it out so many times that she was convinced she could go and kiss it all she wanted and still come out on the other side." At age 39, Grealy succumbed to a heroin overdose.
 If anything, this book should speak volumes about the genre of memoir. We accept memoir as reality, yet it is closer to fiction than fact. I have no doubt that the anecdotes Grealy relates are real, but the story is shaped completely separately from Grealy’s life due to flagrant omissions. I urge all readers to be careful when approach either reading or writing memoir. Reality is more bendable than anyone can comfortably admit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Dickens, Charles "Bleak House"

On the heels of Kony 2012 and the economic crisis Charles Dickens’s biting, sardonic indictment of corruption and “charity” in his novel “Bleak House” is strikingly relevant. Dickens focuses his ire the legal system, which creates endless confusion and constant schemes. He also focuses on people, mostly women, who pour time and energy into helping “poor natives” while ignoring the rampant misery beating at their doorstep.  
Dickens follows exploitation, hypocrisy, and murder into every home, every neighborhood, and every social class in London. He opens with the Lord Chancellor, one the Great Officers of State in British government, but gives equal attention (and perhaps even more attention) to Jo, a street sweeper.
The story is structured around the life of Esther Summerson, an orphan under the care of an elderly retired lawyer. Esther does not know her own heritage, and struggles to find out who she is while dealing with a number of personal issues.  However, the book is more than this. It bounces back and forth between chapters entitled “Esther’s Narrative” that are told from the point of view of the young lady and scenes throughout London: from the Inns of Court to collapsing tenement houses.
The book can seem a bit long-winded and drawn out (my edition ran for eight hundred and eight pages). Yet, it is important to remember that Bleak House was not first conceived as a singular novel to be read at once, but was serialized into twenty installments released over the course of a year and a half.
Dickens social criticism is poignant and biting. The character Mrs. Jellyby lets her children suffer and go without while she devotes herself to African charities that never seem to change anything. He goes even further with his hatred of the legal system exemplified below:
…to consider that, while the sickness of hope deferred was raging in so many hearts this polite show went calmly on from day to day, and year to year, in such good order and composure…as if nobody had ever heard that all over England the name in which they were assembled was a bitter jest…I could not comprehend it (317).
The author’s real power comes in his ability to evoke careful imagery and his word combinations often surprise and delight with their wit and sound. He is a master of description, which gives life to a story that might otherwise be dull. Take for example this passage:
Chesney Wold is shut up, carpets are rolled into scrolls in the corners of comfortless rooms, bright damask does penance in brown Holland, carving and gliding puts on mortification, and the Dedlock ancestors retire from the light of day again. Around and around the house the leaves fall thick – but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is somber and slow. Let the gardener sweep and sweep the turf as he will, and press the leaves into full barrows, and wheel them off, still they lie ankle deep.
What separates Dickens from other novelists who critique their own societies is his attention to the personal. The book is not a pasted-together plot that exists for the pure purpose of riling up anger at the status quo, but is a charming and emotional tale about one young woman’s struggle to define her identity and her destiny. Dickens ending, which focuses on the adult lives of characters we have seen grown up, gives us the impression that life goes on. In some ways this is a more powerful appeal for change then an ending where skinflint lawyers evilly rub their hands. It reminds us that there is beauty in life, goodness and love that needs preserving. Dickens not only points out where we should fight, but reminds us that there is so much worth fighting for. 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Collins, Suzanne – Catching Fire (Hunger Games #2)

To see my review of the first Hunger Games book see:
               
               I am a bit embarrassed to say that I couldn’t put this young adult novel down. I was very invested in the characters and it was almost painful not to know what was going to happen to them. In this book, Katniss finds herself the unknowing symbol of revolution in a tense and oppressed atmosphere. A trip to a neighboring district (read: colony) during her “Victory Tour” prompts a powerful show of solidarity that is instantly met with repression and bloodshed. Her relationships with Peeta Mellark, her companion at the last Hunger Games, and childhood friend Gale begin to be mature, with heart wrenching consequences.
                Seen as a threat to the all-powerful city-state known as the “Capitol,” President Snow and his cohorts desperately want to kill Katniss, but cannot simply do so because of her popularity with people both in the Capitol and in the outlying districts. They come up with an ingenious plan: force previous victors to fight another Hunger Game.
                This new Hunger Game seemed a bit too contrived for my taste. I felt that Collins thought a book dealing with nothing but Katniss’s personal life would be a letdown after the blood and guts that flew for most of the previous book. To combat this, she forced Katniss to fight again by having the Hunger Game competitors be nothing but previous winners, but despite the fancy new arena and new traps, it seems a bit forced. Collins tries a bit too hard to make the book exciting. The descriptions of deaths are even more gruesome and fearful then that before, and she even has the kids review previous wins for that extra dash of blood.
                That being said, on the whole I did enjoy this book. The arena for this Hunger Game was very interesting and the books ending came as satisfying surprise. The cast of competitors were far more interesting than last time and include a woman who tore a man’s throat out with her teeth, a naked seductress, and two out of their mind drug addicts.
What I continue to enjoy most about the series is Katniss’s continued pragmatism. She doesn’t care to be primped and pampered like the fashionable women of the capital; she just wants to wear what’s convenient. She has romantic feelings, but those come second to her duties to her family and to herself. In this book Katniss becomes even more sophisticated and complex, and the reader really feels that she has emerged from the Hunger Games an adult in a teen’s body.
                Collins also has a gift for creating dynamic characters out of very little. Both Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair show up out of nowhere, become well-fleshed out and have complete 180 degree turns in personality within 150 or so pages. I was particularly fascinated with Finnick, a vain playboy with confusing motives.
                This book is great for teens, fantasy lovers, and anyone with a taste for an adventurous novel. Just make sure you start with Book One, or you will be completely lost. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

DiPrima, Diane – Pieces of a Song

I first read Diane DiPrima’s work when I was in high school. She was one of the few female voices in the beat poetry scene. For a while I was fascinated with the couple of poems I could get my hands on including “Song for Baby O” included in this collection. Now that I’ve finally figured out the magic of the lending library I got my hands on “Pieces of a Song.” I expected a collection that followed the clarity and emotional sensitivity I had seen before, but was sorely disappointed.
 “Pieces of a Song” contains over 200 pages worth of hit or miss poems. Some poems evoke beautiful and powerful images and complex emotions. Others get too caught up in hippie shtick to say much of anything. Furthering my annoyance was DiPrima’s constant contraction of words like your to yr would to wd and could to cd.
Below I have included selections from two poems to illustrate my point:
For H.D.
trophies of pain I’ve gathered.                  whose sorrow
do I shore up, in trifles?                                the weavings,
paintings, jewels, plants, I bought

with my heart’s hope.                   rocks from the road
to Hell, broken pieces of statuary, ropes,
bricks, from the city of Dis.

Tara
2
this morning we walked to breakfast
birds were singing
“HOLY HOLY HOLY” she whispered
“that’s what they’re saying
HO-WHEE HO-WHEE
WHOLE WHEAT WHOLE WHEAT
well, anyway whole wheat
is holy too”

This kind of up-and-down writing left me feeling overall unsatisfied.  While there are definitely some stellar poems to come out of this book, one would have to be a hardcore beat poetry fan to enjoy all of it. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Muller, Herta - The Land of Green Plums

When Herta Muller won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 many people were surprised. After reading her novel “The Land of Green Plums” I am too.
                The story is semi-autobiographical. It concerns a young Romanian woman who is part of the German minority during Ceausescu’s violent and oppressive regime.  The book follows the young woman from her arrival at university until her escape into Germany. Accompanying her along this journey are her friend (that she despises) Tereza and three male friends: Edgar, Kurt, and Georg. She is also haunted by the devious Captain Pjele, who is the world’s most passive villain as he half-heartedly attempts to imprison the friends at every turn.
                The book is agonizingly sluggish. It is composed of jilted, uneven vignettes. The book switches time and place so much that it is hard to feel connected to any part. Muller focuses so much on trying to create the atmosphere of oppression that she forgets to have a coherent story. Worse of all, she fails to make any character sympathetic or even fully understood. Though the back of the book claims that it is “a powerful, affecting story—one that makes clear the real value of small triumphs and fleeting moments of happiness,” a better description may go something like this:
A young woman goes to school and at some point meets three boys. She then meets a number of unpleasant people with unpleasant quirks. She talks about her mother’s back pain and tells short stories about her disappointing childhood. This repeats ad nauseam.
Occasional moments of brilliance do not make up for dreary nature of most of the book. The one real highlight of the books comes at the beginning when the protagonist tells the story of Lola, a strange thieving girl driven to suicide.
                I really had to grit my teeth to get through this one. It was so uninteresting and so insistent of its own power that I had read it in tiny bits like a pill you have to cut in half. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Schmidt, Susan Ray: Favorite Wife

Imagine being married off to a man over twice your age. Imagine being the sixth wife of a man. Imagine he is still with all five previous wives and continues to add more. Imagine raising five kids in a series of ramshackle Mexican shacks and trying to keep them safe in the middle of a violent blood feud.
If you were Susan Ray Schmidt (formerly LeBaron) all this and more would be your unlucky lot. As a child Susan’s family joined the Church of the Firstborn of the Fullness of Times, a fundamentalist Mormon sect that practiced, amongst other things, polygamy. At age fifteen she was courted by and quickly married to, a higher up in the church named Verlan LeBaron. Schmidt’s book focuses on her eight years of polygamous marriage and the realities of the “godly” life that fundamentalist Mormons tout. It is a simply wrought tale, and it is obvious at points that Schmidt is not a career author. Though at times this makes for a tedious book, with lots of drivel about who was dating who and what was made for dinner, it gives a feeling of authenticity to the book. This is a woman telling you about her life, not a stylized wordsmith creating fictions.
Schdmit imagined that in marriage she would receive a holy life where she would become a “jewel” in Verlan’s “heavenly crown.” Instead she got a life of neglect, loneliness, and extreme poverty. The squalor that was considered normal was unbelievable. She lived in tiny, hot trailers, in drafty shacks, and in rain soaked jungles while being an obedient wife. Her children often suffered from malnutrition, thanks to the ever growing number of children (thanks to no birth control). “Breakfast was a bowl of coarsely ground wheat mush with milk and honey, and a slice of bread…Verlan can’t afford better food than this!” (134). Later her first child would suffer from chronic diarrhea after months went by with nothing to eat but plain beans.
On top of this, a split in the church caused Verlan’s brother Ervil to mastermind murders of rival fundamentalist Mormon groups. Ervil and his followers would sweep into areas and commit a “raid” in which they would kidnap, slaughter, and set fire to things at will, including two of Ervil’s thirteen wives. Unfortunately, Schmidt devote very little of her book to the feud, instead focusing on day to day life as a plural wife.  Despite this, it is an interesting read, and will make any monogamously married person feel a little more grateful for their situation. I myself felt compelled to never have children after pages upon pages of the emotional and physical drain caused by raising children. Not to mention all of the childbirth scenes.
Eventually Schmidt would leave Verlan to settle down into a monogamous, mainstream Mormon life. This is perhaps the best part of the book, to finally see a woman who has endured so much finally straighten up and make a better life for her and her family.  
I am told this book is not as good as the book by her “sister wife” Irene Spencer, published shortly after Schmidt’s. I will leave that for my readers to decide. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Charles Warnke

I usually don't write about things that aren't books, but this essay definitely deserves some space on my little corner of the internet. 
http://thoughtcatalog.com/2011/dont-date-a-girl-who-reads/

Warnke has something very unique and lacking in today's literature. He has a true understanding of how words work together to create rhythms and soundscapes, which can be more powerful than the traditional authors' weapons of metaphor, symbol, and image. This is not to say his images aren't well-crafted and repulsive (Find her in the smoke, drunken sweat, and varicolored light of an upscale nightclub).  His blunt tone is shocking and captivating. He refuses to skirt around the grim realities of modern life ( Lapse into a bored indifference. Lapse into an indifferent sadness. Have a mid-life crisis. Grow old. Wonder at your lack of achievement). 


Most of all, I am impressed with his use of the imperative. It is very rare for an author to command his audience (or even recognize them). It reminds me of the medieval concept that a book is a mirror that reflects onto you, the more you read of it the more its image because part of you. By egging the audience on towards the weak, easy life he manages to get the reader to rebel, to desire more, which is one of the best things writing can do. 


Warnke is also pushing the literary world. It is refreshing to see a piece that isn't so hampered by conventional story craft and the expectation of critics and book agents. It is a free piece, there for anyone who will take it. It is honest and clear. 


I expect great things out of Mr. Charles Warnke. 

For those interested here is his website: http://pleasepunctuatethis.com/

Brooks, Max—World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War


                Brooks’ first novel “The Zombie Survival Guide” became an instant cult classic. Anyone with an interest in the macabre found it in their hands at some point. The book was refreshing as it broke from the typical zombie story narrative: there is a group of people (often a couple), strange things start happening, they fight zombies, they discover how zombies came to be, they die or the outbreak is stopped.  “The Zombie Survival Guide” instead focused on how life to would have to adapt on a day-to-day basis if humans were to survive a long term zombie outbreak. It was refreshing to see an author take on a well-established trope in a new way.
                His second novel “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” furthers the theme of expanding the possibilities of the zombie genre by taking it a totally new direction. The zombie threat has already, for the most part, been eliminated at the start of the book. The end of the “war” against the undead ended a decade before the narrator begins his interviews. The narrator works for the government and amassed these stories while creating a postwar report. He travels around the world from China to Antarctica to Burlington, Vermont seeking the complete story from first outbreak to the struggle to rebuild. Participants in his interviews range from feral children to top government officials and everywhere in between.
                It is obvious that Brooks has done a lot of research. His footnotes reveal he has done research on subjects as diverse as Israeli tanks, dams in Lesotho, and the famines in North Korea. This adds to the plausibility of Brooks’ story. His hypotheses of what went down are very interesting. I especially enjoyed the rise of a ultra-religious Russian super -state.
                The book is often very emotional, as people tell story after story of how their world fell apart. One story in particular stood out for me. It is told by a young man originally from South Africa. It takes place during the “Great Panic” when refugee camps were not set up and the disease was spreading uncontrollably:
“I ran through a shanty where a woman was hiding in a corner. Her two children were huddled against her, crying. ‘Come with me!’ I said. ‘Please, come, we have to go!’ I held out my hands, moved closer to her. She pulled her children back, brandishing a sharpened screwdriver. Her eyes were wide, scared… I left her there. I didn’t know what else to do. She is still in my memory, when I sleep or maybe close my eyes sometimes. Sometimes she’s my mother, and the crying children are my sisters.”

It can get a bit tedious at points, but moments like the one above make the read worth it. Brooks’ novel is more than just a fantasy romp, it uses the concept of a “zombie apocalypse” to explore real social issues and how humans deal with tragedy.  

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Collins, Suzanne - The Hunger Games Book One


Collins, Suzanne – The Hunger Games, Book One
After the botched, painfully bad Twilight became the lead sci-fi/fantasy series and a massive cultural phenomenon, I and others like me were left profoundly disturbed by how a book so poorly written and with such misogynistic undertones could be so widely embraced. Young girls across the world were lapping up a romance where the heroine sits around pining for an entire book trying to kill herself and where the lead hunk disables her car to prevent her from seeing her friends.
                This in mind, meet Suzanne Collins and her fierce, tough lead Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is a girl living in a post-apocolyptic future where America has become “Panem,” comprising of twelve districts that starve and suffer for the sake of an opulent and sadistic capital. To keep everyone in line, the capital pulls two teens (a boy and a girl) from each district to fight to the death for their televised amusement. Katniss takes the place of her younger sister in the game and is sent towards almost certain doom.
                Collins is able to do what all young-adult writers should: she tells a compelling and complex tale with clarity and word economy. Her purpose is never confusing or overwrought or burdened by simplistic concepts of good and evil. At the same time her characters are dynamic enough and her plot thrilling enough to stand side-by-side with the best contemporary adult writers.
                The first novel in the Hunger Games trilogy is great beach reading for adults and a wonderful introduction to literature for young adults. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Galchen, Rivka – Atmospheric Disturbances

Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances reads like a breath of fresh air. The novel is equal parts mystery and philosophy. Her writing style is breezy. She walks the fine line between sparse and overly-descriptive with ease. Most importantly, the plot is highly original.
The novel follows the misadventures of Dr. Leo Liebenstein, an aging New York psychiatrist/hipster. One day Leo comes home to a woman who looks just like his beautiful Argentinian wife Rema. She has all the same memories and mannerisms but nothing can convince Leo that this is his real wife. He believes she has been replaced by a double but has no idea who did this or why they would do this. Forsaking this “simulacrum,” as her calls her, he travels to Argentina to seek the truth and to finally meet her estranged mother.
Tied up with this mystery is meteorological intrigue started off by one of Libenstein’s patients. Harvey is convinced he is part of a secret society that controls the weather. Although he is rather low on the secret society’s totem pole, Harvey frequently absconds to different parts of the country in order to perform the important weather control tasks given to him by the secret society. In a harebrained attempt to keep Harvey from taking off again, Rema and Leo set up a scam to give Harvey instructions using the name of meteorologist Tzvi Gal-Chen. Gal-Chen soon becomes a sort of conspirator in the plot, though no one has ever met him and there are plenty of obituaries in his name. Despite the complex nature of the plot, none of it ever seems silly or rushed. This is quite a feat considering the novel finished in less than 250 pages.
When Tzvi appears things get really interesting. It doesn’t take much to realize there may be a connection between “Tzvi Gal-Chen” and “Rivka Galchen.” Tzvi is actually a real person; in fact he is the father of Rivka. All of the research and personal information in the book is the real Gal-Chen’s. Also, Gal-Chen passed away unexpectedly. In many ways this book is a form of grieving. Like Leo, Rivka Galchen was trained as a psychiatrist. She also woke up one day to find someone important in her life missing. Atmosopheric Disturbances relates the states of panic, grief, and denial experienced during mourning as well as the way it can turn a life upside down. At the same time, it is not at all pushy about this theme. The focus remains on the mystery and never becomes preachy or over philosophical.
Rivka Galchen is a writer to watch. With a debut novel as well-written and exciting as Atmospheric Disturbances Galchen has the potential to be one of the best fiction writers working today. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Campbell, Bruce – If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor

Bruce Campbell is a legend in certain circles. He played the protagonist Ash in the wildly popular Evil Dead series; the smarmy Autolycus in Xena and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys; and the titular character in The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. I myself remember eating cereal with my Dad on lazy weekend mornings watching Brisco and can attest to the awesome power of Bruce Campbell’s B-rated goodness.
 If Chins Could Kill is a fitting literary companion to Campbell’s cult career. It follows him from high school student to the present (or at least the present as of 2001) in a meandering way.  While there is some exposition Campbell relies on anecdotes. The book is divided into short sections that usually revolve around a single aspect. The bulk of these tales will elicit a chuckle. My personal favorite involved his desperate quest for investors to fund The Evil Dead. As Campbell says:
You haven’t lived until you’ve screened an unrated Super-8  film at a dinner party for four dentists and their wives, watching them squirm as a possessed creature (me, in this case) bites his own hand off. The band news was – we ruined their meals. The good news was—we god some moola [sic].”
 Although a fast and funny read the above except can speak to its sloppiness. Campbell is a great storyteller but he is no writer. The large number of pictures seems like filler at times and the rampant clip art is both cheesy and often irrelevant.
To hardcore horror fans this is a must read. Readers who are not familiar with Bruce Campbell may want to sit this one out.