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.

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:

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.