An utterly charming and warmly human variation on "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady," with loads of references to both.
Dunn's creative liberties successfuAn utterly charming and warmly human variation on "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady," with loads of references to both.
Dunn's creative liberties successfully reimagine the English flower girl as a pig farmer's daughter in the modern-day American South. This play is populated by a small but specific cast who are acting quite differently from their previous incarnations, if they were originally there at all -- I don't recall Eliza having a trannie pal before, which is a shame because Tiffany Box is both a hoot and a delight.
Prof. Higgins wasn't a blustery old sot in this (except through Higgins's remembrances of arguments past), which I loved because he's one of my favorite theatrical characters ever and I want him to be less cranky. The conflict, instead, arises from Freddy's unpleasant sister, Eliza's own floundering sense of self worth, and the question of when does self-improvement stop being a few helpful tweaks and start compromising an individual's endearing idiosyncrasies.
Thanks, Mark Dunn, for making insomnia suck a little less. You're one of my favorites for a reason....more
So. This was my introduction to bizarro short stories, which seem to have just as much weird shit going on as a bizarro novella only with fewer sanitySo. This was my introduction to bizarro short stories, which seem to have just as much weird shit going on as a bizarro novella only with fewer sanity reference points thrown in like escape pods. Which this collection has (escape pods, not sanity). And they seem to be filled with Hungry Hungry Space Badgers. Because when you start off with a story about motherfucking werewolves not getting off your motherfucking plane, you can only top that with space oddities. And also houses made of cats. (Not houses filled with cats, which is what I was expecting. What, is cat-hoarding too weird for you, bizarro?)
The short story is not at all my favorite storytelling vehicle (unless you're Raymond Carver, and most people aren't) but it really works for this genre in general and these stories' tone in particular for a number of reasons. It's a nice little sampler, only instead of chocolates or cheeses it's geriatric punk rockers (in what is probably the best recapturing-one's-youth yarn I've encountered since "Cocoon") and reality television to the extreme (or the next logical step, depending on your preferred degree of society-directed pessimistic realism). It gives a broad overview of the different bizarro flavors -- the shocking and gory, the reality that's just a bit more off-kilter than ours, the unfamiliar landscapes, the just plain weird -- so that it serves as a really great introduction to all the places the genre can go. It also keeps the more viscera-strewn tales from getting to be too much for the reader who isn't used to encouraged cannibalism and Frosty dancin' to support his meth habit.
But it also totally spoiled "Shatnerquake" for me, so points off. Though said spoiler is mentioned in one of the best and least shameless approaches to self-promotion ever, which is quite redemptive.
Additional points off for needing juuuust a little more editing. My proofreading superpowers, having been instilled in me via a proclivity for eating and not being homeless, are not a part of my awesome that I can just turn off, so seeing "want" instead of "what" or "this" instead of "his" or "an" instead of "and" just irritate the pants off me. Not that I was wearing pants in the first place....more
Seven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop oSeven pages in, a passage that ostensibly illustrates the bond between M -- the titular smoking hybrid who's now safely mundane against the backdrop of the modern world -- and one of his friendlier coworkers actually betrays the lonely core of the Minotaur’s five-millennia-old being:
Cecie keeps telling him she’d like to take him home some night, husband or no. The Minotaur waits hopefully. Husband or no.
(Believe me: It’s brutally sad in context.)
Not to be outranked on the Don't You Want to Actively Seek out This Character so You Can Befriend and Hug Him? scale of heartstring-tugging insights into a traditionally antagonistic creature, a paragraph on the 100th page's recto side brings the dual, tormented nature of M’s existence into aching clarity with a tiny inkling of what it does to someone to live as a monstrous outsider for five thousand years:
The architecture of the Minotaur’s heart is ancient. Rough hewn and many chambered, his heart is a plodding laborious thing, built for churning through the millennia. But the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it, through his monster’s veins, the weighty, necessary, terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year, their rattling bones rising at his feet like a sea of cracked ice, than to accept tenderness and return it.
Seriously. If that doesn’t make you want to give the poor guy a giant hug and a tender pat on the snout -- especially considering that such a revelation comes on the heels of a fleeting but significant physical interaction with the imperfect waitress M is crushing on hard -- then you have neither a soul nor a beating heart to speak of and I cannot, in good conscience, encourage further communication with you because you're probably a zombie. Not if you can read ....and puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his. And puts her hand on top of his without the awed reverence of a beast unaccustomed to gentleness absolutely demolishing your stoic reserve and tear ducts. Though you’re probably a lost cause anyway if you made it past page 49’s confession that touch comes so infrequently to the Minotaur that when it happens, sincere or not, it nearly takes his breath away, blinds him momentarily to all rational thought and allegiance without your breath hitching and that little premonition of danger making you fiercely protective of M -- or maybe that’s just me identifying with fictional characters to an unhealthy extent again.
This (debut, nonetheless) novel does so many things well beyond its sympathetic rendering of a mythical abomination. At one point, M’s constitution is described as one of “gritty resignation,” which can also be said about the narration’s tone. M is never pathetic or hopeless, traits one might expect from so tragic and long a fall (fortunately, his Labyrinth days are mostly hazy half-dreams; even M’s primal defenses are blunted by a self-control he’s exerting after eons of learning that both “possessing a capacity for evil unmatched” and “his own potential for tiny rages” can lead to the kind of dire consequences he no longer welcomes). He’s scared and nervous an awful lot, but mostly in regard to the damage he can unintentionally cause other people and the embarrassment he can bring upon himself, and has a downright endearing habit of bovinely poking at the ground with his very human foot when he isn’t sure of what else to do, but he soldiers on with a hard-won, Zen-like “state of indifference, sometimes blessed, sometimes cursed” that is completely expected from someone who has been everywhere once and who has passively watched the ultimately inconsequential rise and fall of countless civilizations.
I feel so strange saying that I loved this book because there were so many moments that killed me with their undercurrents of sadness. For every instance detailing M’s private and painstaking maintenance ritual (being half-bull, after all, creates skin problems and requires frequent horn grooming), it was the self-sufficient singularity of it that got me the most. He reacts to the smallest kindness with a touchingly disproportionate relief and gratitude. His bull’s mouth is not made for human words, so verbal communication is an onerous task: His economy of language and the obvious embarrassment he feels when attempting to speak make his few non-grunted utterances poignant, not piteous (there's an exchange with M and his boss that crescendos with M's submissive, disbelieving "Not fired?" and, I swear, those paired words have never sung with such emotional resonance before). And his heady desire for the mere ability to sing into the warm nights as he drives his lovingly maintained jalopy screams of a being who may be no longer trapped in a Grecian maze against his will but confines himself to his inner world, as rich as any terminal introvert's mental plane, because he knows he never had and never will enjoy a real place in what’s going on around him.
Even M’s bullish half is capable of empathy and despair. He certainly recognizes the cannibalistic nature of becoming his employer’s new beef carver and his emotional reaction to a televised bullfight – one of the few times he deigns to use the contraption, as ancient M “feels hostile toward most things electronic.... There is a threat in the very existence of such minute and exact circuitry that touches something primal in the Minotaur” – is terrible to consider in its personal relevance.
As sympathetically as M is painted within these 300-some pages, it is nearly impossible to suspend one's disbelief to allow the sexual encounters between a woman and a man-bull to be effortlessly romantic. As loudly and over-earnestly as I was rooting for the Minotaur to get some, the novel would have hit a mortally insincere snag had M gotten his rocks off without a hitch (and a few suspicions about his partner's stability). Just like the few unprovoked, unwelcome confrontations and scuffles M finds himself in by virtue of being "a freak," it was absolutely crucial to the integrity of the narrative for M's lone love scene in this book to come with some ugliness.
Because as much as you wanna take M's hand in yours for a little while to assure him that there are more than just a scant few decent people out there, the book straight-up questions what the hell an attractive, mentally sound woman would find arousing in such an unusual partner; also true to the gist of the story, however, there is a well-intentioned and genuine sense of companionship at the heart of a seemingly deviant behavior: What would compel a woman to kiss a man with the head of a bull? Pity? Curiosity? Genuine attraction? Maybe [she] recognizes the freakish parts of her own self and is drawn to the Minotaur through that alliance. Most likely it is a fluctuating merger of all these things that move her.
Quite simply, I love this book and can't wait to read it again. I love what it had to say about people by way of a thoroughly nontraditional (but also undeniably human) protagonist. I loved M himself with such unrestrained empathy that he might be my new favorite fictional character. I loved the casual metaphors, the easy allusions, the subtle themes. I loved its warmth. And I really loved how it was a perfect storm of things that reminded me of how much I love getting lost and immersed in damn fine storytelling propelling a damn fine tale.
Guys, seriously. Read this book. Read this book now....more
There are two big things this book had working in its favor before I even cracked open Richard Fariña's under-appreciated final gem: The Pynchon conneThere are two big things this book had working in its favor before I even cracked open Richard Fariña's under-appreciated final gem: The Pynchon connection (which is was what nudged me in the direction of this novel in the first place, albeit more than a year after "Gravity's Rainbow" mournfully introduced me to Fariña) and my own probably-over-romanticized-at-this-point affinity for my college experience, with Pynchon's intro (which includes an obligatory kazoo-choir reference!) being, of course, a voyeuristic delight of the highest order right until the moment it crashed back to heartbreaking reality and the novel's not-entirely-fictitious collegiate antics serving as a not-entirely-unpleasant reminder of why I was so reluctant to let go of college life.
And then, during the year's last handful of blessedly slow days at the Crappiest Place on Earth, I discovered that actually taking my lunch hour to hunker shoelessly down in the backseat of my car with a blanket and a book is pretty much the best thing to ever happen to my sanity professional life. Observe the photographic proof of my sublime on-the-clock refuge:
(Thank bouncing Baby Jesus that Fariña's Cornell chum desensitized me to complex equations interrupting literature.)
So now a novel that was published two days before its author's far-too-early death has found an even fonder association in my own personal landscape, thanks to my unyielding dissatisfaction with and need to escape from a job that takes me farther and farther from where I wanted to be at this point in my life.
I am so glad that I read this book now, rather than as a starry-eyed undergrad with dreams of running the NYT and writing The Greatest American Novel of My Generation on the side. I have a better sense of how life is not something that can be planned for, that growing up is fucking hard even with a willingness to let one's inner child have a say every now and again, that death is always lurking around every corner, and coming to this novel without even one of those hard lessons under my belt would have reduced this from a poignantly frenzied love song of youth's last discoveries to an instruction manual for college kids who just want to shake things up (not that there's anything inherently wrong with living in the moment and taking inconsequentially stupid chances, for those are the backbone of the best Hey, Remember When...? tales). I absolutely would have embraced any opportunity to cause a scene at a formal frathouse dinner like Gnossos Pappadopoulis (Fariña's thinly veiled stand-in for himself) did, just as I had also proclaimed myself in love with wrong guy after wrong guy based on a series of limited-engagement liaisons, as Gnossos did with Kristin, his obsession in green knee-socks and loafers.
My tendency to relate too personally with literary characters came out to play for keeps as Gnossos became a clearer and clearer picture; save for a few lapses into first-person narration, this is a story told mostly in third-person with a focus on GP, so it takes some time to get a sense of his motivation and how others perceive him (it takes a little longer to reconcile the two seemingly at-odds realities). And perhaps I was imposing my own inner workings on Gnossos but I left this book with a sense of awed kinship inspired by his mostly successful attempts to hide his soft heart under an ornery facade. He wants to feel, he wants to live, he wants to be earnest in his devil-may-care approach to throwing himself into living but he is woefully, painfully afraid of doing so because fully embracing life means also acknowledging that death is the inevitable end game.
Gnossos seems like the kind of maniac ringleader whose enthusiasm and passion attract unresisting friends and followers in droves but his attitude obscures a desperate desire to fall in love rather than indulge in a series of unemotional physical encounters, which is what it seems will finally help him stop fighting thanathos with an unequivocally driving life force. Had I not read Pynchon's "Entropy" in college, I would have probably missed the significance of how Gnossos has hermetically sealed himself inside every room he occupies in an attempt to artificially preserve life against the natural encroachment of death -- until his night with Kristin has him throwing open windows with the zeal of a man possessed. He is a character who fights the unpleasant reality with the much more pleasing act of losing oneself in the moment and clinging to that happiness as if that's all it takes to preserve that joy for eternity. As his attempts at pleasant stasis become more desperate and he loses control over situations that initially plopped him on top of the world, it becomes more obvious that this is a guy who wants freedom without responsibility -- and, in the end, isn't that what college is all about?
It's Bukowski once you've swapped the booze for drugs. It's Hunter S. Thompson with an overt awareness that death is nipping at his heels. It's Kerouac as a college kid. It's Pynchon with narrative restraint. But most of all, it's both proof that Fariña's early death was a huge loss to the literary world and a tribute to a screamingly talented artist who knew how to find the biggest truths in the smallest moments while laughing and kicking death in the ass. Because as much as Gnossos (and, presumably, Fariña) feared death, his ability to suck the marrow from every moment is the ultimate victory of life....more
A college professor frequently referred to this book during a lecture on "King Lear"; a friend in that same class and I had come to invoke the fictitiA college professor frequently referred to this book during a lecture on "King Lear"; a friend in that same class and I had come to invoke the fictitious king's name as code for a self-absorbed acquaintance we miserably shared, which lead my friend to present this to me as a jokey birthday gift.
When ordering a book on toxic parents earlier today, Amazon recommended that I also buy this. Joke's on you, internet: Someone already bought it for me. Squeeze ten dollars (plus shipping) from some other damaged soul.
Jess, I hope you know how inadvertently useful your gag gift turned out to be when I rediscovered it while shelving the nonfiction portion of my still-packed library six years and a day later....more
After the third time I started this book, got about five pages deep and decided that I just wasn't in the mood for a pulpy romp yet, I finally found tAfter the third time I started this book, got about five pages deep and decided that I just wasn't in the mood for a pulpy romp yet, I finally found the there's-a-car-on-fire-and-I-just-can't-look-away point. What ensued left me assuring myself that my fear of large aquatic bodies is totally justified because boating adventures almost always end in catastrophe. This one, for example, began with a pirate chase and ended with a dude eagerly anticipating his future as a necrophiliac. The rest of the tale included things that not even my most dementedly vivid nightmares could conjure. Like a penis breaking in half from being forced into too many orifices. And a vagina-baby (NOT as obvious of a description as you'd think!) being sexxed to death. And a woman asserting her alpha-femaleness by painting herself with her own menstrual blood.
While the other bizarro books I've read seem to focus on people dealing with strange impositions that wreak havoc on their daily lives, this is the first one that flung its characters right into the fire: There's no shred of normalcy to be found on Spider Island. The body count climbs as the main characters try to wring some sense from their surroundings, going so far as clinging to the time-honored coping method of writing all the weirdness off as a drunken illusion, when the only thing that could kind of save them from the native babes' sacrifices and unwelcome corporeal pillaging is to embrace their inner savages. Which they finally do. And which also involves being stuffed like Thanksgiving turkeys with dynamite.
"Gargoyle Girls" has the dubious honor of being the first book since "American Psycho" that put my claims of possessing a nigh infinite capacity for the deranged to the test, as well as being the vehicle by which I discovered the uncomfortable delight of referring to olfactory offenses as "smelling like stomach rape." I had a few moments of wondering if certain details were necessary to the story rather than the shock value they brought to it but was usually surprised to find such things being resurrected as valid plot components. Though this be madness, aye, there really was some method in't after all....more
If my first novel were this good, I'd be tempted to pull a Harper Lee and let that one beautiful work be monument enough to my prowess as both a wordsIf my first novel were this good, I'd be tempted to pull a Harper Lee and let that one beautiful work be monument enough to my prowess as both a wordsmith and a storyteller....more
I was so amped about this book when I tore through it a few weeks ago; alas, in that yawning chasm of time between then and when I first sat down to sI was so amped about this book when I tore through it a few weeks ago; alas, in that yawning chasm of time between then and when I first sat down to start this review (as opposed to this most recent effort -- I think at least my fourth?), I found that I’d forgotten a lot of the specific reasons why it had hit all the right spots for me.
Fortunately, since Goodreads has instilled in me the need to take notes on, emphatically underline passages from and analyze the pants off every book I read these days, a quick revisit to my thorough defacing of this novel got me right back in the mindset of being unexpectedly taken by a deceptively disinterested narrator. This is a work that got under my skin and burrowed deep into my brain in slightly disturbing but mostly welcome ways right from the first sentence.
I am not a terribly literal person. I love hyperboles and understatement and metaphors because they allow for elasticity of interpretation. It lets people impose their own inner landscapes on the seemingly uniform outside world, just as it leaves room for individual interpretations of message, intent, subtext, whatever. People do not perceive and interact with the world the same way, so why should they be expected to hear the same things, pick up on the same cues, follow the same logic of thought? To me, that’s how you get to the core of a person and their internal workings: Let them show you how they operate by giving them enough variables to put in comprehensible order as they see fit.
Of course, forcing the observer to do some creative thinking on the fly (or trusting them to observe at all, in some cases) has a tendency to backfire more often than simply saying what's on your mind to eliminate all doubt, but that's how you suss out the mental midgets. Or, you know, wind up with a death sentence. Like life, it's all a gamble and not always worth the risk.
As odd (though probably unsurprising, given the nature of my reviews) as it is to say, I found a certain kinship with Meursault. True, there’s not much to the fellow when you observe him as an outsider (that is, outside his head), but when I let myself roll around in the vast implications of what he says and the fathoms of unspoken depth in what impels him to behave as he does, I started to recognize so many of my own leaps of logic and nonsensical-without-an-explanation reactions.
To me, Meursault is just a guy who just doesn't process the world in the same rank-and-file way as others do. He's an open book, an adaptable entity and honest to a fault, a man who doesn't subscribe to societal norms -- not because it's cool to be That Guy but because he truly seems to process events and impulses with a sense of sincerely stoic reservation. How many people haven't cried at a loved one's funeral, only to crumble under the emotional weight days or weeks or months later after some mundane event hammers home the finality of loss? Or have taken up an unpleasant task to relieve a friend from its terrible burden? Or shrugged their shoulders in the face of an ugly truth because nothing can change the course of fate once the momentum reaches its unstoppable peak? What, really, is the point of getting emotional when it's not going to change a damn thing?
Meursault knows he is powerless to change things. He knows he has no business making assumptions about other people and their behaviors based solely on his own. What's so wrong with that? Fighting death is the most hopeless of causes so don't even bother wasting the effort; similarly, he knows that crying over his mother's death won't bring her back. Besides, what we know about their relationship is only what Meursault reveals, overtly or not, so who are we to judge him strange for not reacting as histrionically as we would? Isn't it awfully presumptuous to impose our sense of "normal" on a stranger? But by the time he shares his belief that no one has a right to cry over his Maman when being so close to death allowed her a peace that simply does not exist in the bloom of life, Meursault's own minimal relevancy to the world is nearing its close. We are not supposed to get to the heart of him but we sure can appreciate where he's coming from with just enough effort to realize that the example made of him misses the point by a shamefully vast distance.
This book touched on a lot of things that annoy me about society, mainly the need to cling to misconceptions when confronted with an individual or circumstance that can't be neatly cataloged as a "type" or doesn't fall into a inflexibly prefabricated black-or-white category. Why is it so difficult for the staggering masses to extend the courtesy and minimal exertion of critical thinking to appreciate and be educated by a deviation from the norm? I appreciated the opportunity to judge that which I cannot stand in a cathartic, safely isolated way. It allowed me to focus on feeling just awful for Meursault. I mean, c'mon -- someone had to, right? He's the victim of the dangers of monochromatic thinking in a world painted in every hue, common or not.
(Alternate read is that Meursault is an emotionally stunted Maman's boy who can't cope with life sans mommy, throws himself at this woman he barely knows and then gets himself legally killed so he doesn't have to do it himself, but that's so... so.... nope, not even gonna consider that one.)...more
I can't say I was delighted when I found out that Glen Duncan, one of my long-time favorite living writers, had a werewolf novel in the works, let alone a whole trilogy of 'em; I can say, however, that when The Last Werewolf came out a few years ago, it won me over in a matter of pages, as tackling the ever- (and, for me, maddeningly) popular paranormal-beastie fad did nothing to diminish the elements of Duncan's writing that have kept me a loyally, fanatically enrapt reader of his works for more than a decade. Because, really, I read Duncan for the achingly gorgeous writing, and he does have an exemplary track record of wringing poignantly universal truths of the human condition from otherwordly characters, as he proved with earlier works like I, Lucifer and Death of an Ordinary Man.
By Blood We Live, the most recent installment in Duncan's werewolf saga, doesn't pick up exactly where the series' second book, Talulla Rising left off. The werewolf pack comprising Talulla, her three-year-old twins, her lover Walker, and a few of their were-pals is hunkered down in its newest temporary haven and waiting for their monthly transformation but to get to their story, one must first encounter the 20,000-year-old vampire Remshi, who just awoke from an unplanned two-year hibernation of sorts after running into Talulla and swearing that she is the reincarnation of his long-ago werewolf lover. To complicate the already hairy issues that arise from eating people and the existential crises such gory imperatives tend to bring, the usual self-righteously obsessed group of monster-hunters (the Vatican-based Militi Christi has supplanted the now-defunct World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena as The Enemy) is determined to take down all the paranormal monsters (and publicly bring Talulla to the light of God, whom she makes no secret of believing dead) as the human world has slowly begun to accept that it's sharing living space with supernatural apex predators who feed on them, which thoroughly mucks up the vampires' and werewolves' secrecy, plans and whatever degrees of normalcy their respective curses allow them.
What makes a genre that isn't easy (again, for me) to take seriously actually work for this novel and its two predecessors is that Duncan uses supernatural characters to expose otherwise wholly human impulses, fears, motives, and struggles to reconcile reality's ugliness with the individual's impossible wants. Myriad Big Issues--life, death, love, fate, religion--get ample air time as they're examined from all angles by all kinds of beasties. Rather than sticking with a primary point of view like the preceding two books did, By Blood We Live is a story told by its vampires and werewolves alike, allowing the fantastic elements to serve the story rather than the other way around. We get to see their shared sympathetic understanding of each other as well as how each curse affects the afflicted differently through a host of variables ranging from lifespan to mental state to current preoccupations. While this method of storytelling does betray that all of Duncan's characters are prone to similar bouts of matter-of-fact pontificating, it's hard to justify complaining about narrators' common predilection for high-minded observation and ten-dollar words: If nothing else, it turns a currently over-sexed genre into something much more intellectually and emotionally compelling.
The demonstratively reiterated humanity of monsters and monstrosity of humans is an effective somersault of expectations. The werewolves and vampires alike in Duncan's lore feel the lives they've taken swimming through their blood, allowing the until-recently unsympathetically rendered beasts to feel a morally ambiguous mix of secondhand human memories they can only enjoy vicariously, a conflicted dominance over their food source and jealousy of its comparatively uncomplicated existence, and an understanding acceptance of why their prey is eager to rid the world of the unnatural threat it fears. The supernatural cast are but slaves to the biological need for regular slaughter and each have to make their peace with it in order to go on living; the so-called army of God out to destroy Talullah, Remshi and their kin are doing so without the twinges of conscience their supposedly monstrous counterparts suffer. It's a subtle enough shift to underscore the point without beating the reader over the head with it while putting basic human turmoil on a grander stage for better observation.
Of all the recurring elements waltzing through this novel, the echos of Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" was both the most unexpected and the most satisfying, especially as someone (once again, like me) who is just over the moon for Stephen King's Dark Tower series based on the same poem. It is so geekily gratifying as when literary worlds collide, and whispers of Roland's quest resurfacing in the narrative with an increasing frequency as Duncan's story hurdled forward made for recent memory's best surprise comminglings of two unrelated written works. Like Roland, who's the last of his people in both his indigenous poem and King's seven-volume series, Talullah and Remshi know a thing or two about seemingly meaningless, circuitous quests and an unfathomable life span that spreads far beyond the finite days of their natural peers.
The novel ends with confirmation that the war between the non-human factions and mortals is just beginning, and modern times make living under the low-visibility an immortal being needs to avoid becoming an obvious target a more difficult task than it was in the less tech- and surveillance-besotted past. By Blood We Live does both its readers and characters the compliments of an unresolved ending, as a book cannot wax eloquent about the cruelties of the world continuing to forge ahead in the face of death without doing so itself, as it would cheapen the elements of messy truth within to wrap them up with a convenient but wholly unrealistic tidiness. The world Duncan has created for his characters bears a striking resemblance to our real one in that it spins on the axis of life trudging onward well after individual stories end....more
While I do tend to take my sweet time moseying toward a review after finishing a book, stewing both over and in my thoughts for often days at a time bWhile I do tend to take my sweet time moseying toward a review after finishing a book, stewing both over and in my thoughts for often days at a time before taking the perfectionist's route to laboring over my words (or slapping some observations together to see what sticks and hoping that no one points out the crooked seams or varicolored threads), trying to sort and figure out what I want to say about The Optimist's Daughter was an especially difficult task. It wasn't until Mark -- who is often exactly what I need to pry a sticky thought loose from the place where things elude elucidation (thanks, Mark!) -- left a comment on the in-progress version of this review that I saw where the difficulties lie. The problem was not, as I mistakenly believed at first, the unfortunate truth that it is mighty hard talking about a much-loved book beyond HOLY MOTHER OF BACONATOR, THIS BOOK ROCKED MY FACE OFF: It's that I've been trying to use my head to approach a book that I felt almost entirely in my heart. (And also that I suffer from a paralyzing fear of sounding corny in a public forum, which made the immediately preceding confession hard to even consider typing.)
So let me try to establish where I was emotionally during most of my time reading The Optimist's Daughter. I recently spent an evening with my little brother, his girlfriend and some other fine folks in celebration of my future sister-in-law turning 21 (as I spent my 21st birthday starting and finishing a 20-page final paper and then moving out of my dorm room for the summer, I embraced the opportunity to properly observe a milestone event that I never thought I'd help a loved one usher in again). My brother has more beef with our parents than I do (to the tune of $40K of debt that they fraudulently and unconscionably thrust upon him before he finally moved out, but that's another story for another review), so we invariably vent about our deplorable origins whenever we're together. But this was a happy occasion that called for minimum mutual griping -- and, while Little Bro's girlfriend is well-versed in just how deeply fucked up our parents are and understands our need for the sporadic bitch session, I tend to clam up about such things around her, as her much more loving mother died when she was 14, leaving FSIL at the mercy of both a father and step-father who did not treat her at all like her good-hearted self deserves.
Later, since hubs and I live tantalizingly close to a bar, we made a midnight sojourn to the local watering hole on our way home because, hey, why not go all the way and keep drinking? As I've demonstrated many times before, I'm at a point where I'm pretty comfortable talking about life as a self-appointed orphan; my husband knows this better than anyone else but is still reluctant to broach the topic unless I lead the way (or, you know, we receive another letter from a collection agency about my mother's mounting debt -- which, objectively, I find hilarious considering that not speaking to the horrid shrew in three years means that I never gave her my new address, which she is somehow using to apply for things). But, even in the wake of listening to my brother and me swap grievances about our lousy parents, it wasn't 'til after a few lips-loosening rounds that hubs asked if the wound of severing all ties with my family still hurts. But, really, you can't miss what you never had and you can't hurt where there's no feeling left. I didn't grow up with a fraction of the love I now feel when I spend the holidays or a just-because afternoon with my husband's family, nuclear or extended. And, through the five-Guinness-deep fog I'd worked myself into, I was blindsided by the stone-cold-sober realization what does sting is how all my brother and his girlfriend have is themselves, me, and their friends. And, yeah, they both seem pretty happy with the way things are but that doesn't stop me from feeling terrible on their behalf. Because I've at least been blessed with a second chance at finding out what a close-knit family feels like, to have in-laws who regard me as the daughter they've always wanted and with a parental warmth I've never known. And it kills me that I can't help two of the people I love and want to protect the most fill what has to be a similarly shaped and long-empty void.
It was with that mindset (and self-inflicted guilt, because that's where I'm a viking) I approached a considerable chunk of Eudora Welty's Pulitzer Prize-winning gem of a novel. Laurel, the 40-some-year-old widow who has watched her mother die years before and now stands helplessly aside as her father gives himself up to his age, is left with her young stepmother, hometown friends and neighbors, and a house filled with memories as she grapples with making sense of life without a safety net of unconditional love.
Please do not misunderstand: This is not one of those novels that is eking by on bland mawkishness alone. The writing is sublime. I have spent so much time entrenched in the long-held belief that anyone who opted for five words when twice as many could be deployed just as easily is guilty of not trying hard enough. Discovering Raymond Carver has been instrumental in changing my tune, though the impact of this book alone would have been enough to silence the mulishly stubborn biases of my youth. Welty rivals Carver when it comes to packing a brutalizing force in just enough detail to act as a guiding light through the narrative but leaving so much left unsaid so that the reader is left to contemplate the implications while affixing his or her own personal relevancies to deliver the intended blow of dawning clarity. There is so much power in Welty'a words but it's her silent symbols that convey the most involuble truths. The sadness and loss bursting from both the spoken and un- very nearly had this novel thrumming with compounded grief that needed an outlet before the pages themselves imploded with unexpressed emotions.
That outlet is Laurel's histrionic, selfish and utterly unlikeable stepmother, Fay -- who reminded me so much of my mother that I couldn't help but pound this book that I loved against whatever surface closest to me in achingly frustrated empathy for Laurel. While Laurel is reacquainting herself with her parents as individuals whose context is purely historical and complete now, understanding their place in her life and their significance to each other, coming to the kind of epiphany that is the only preface to closure, Fay runs off with her equally insufferable family as if the death of a spouse is the kind of thing one gets over with a carelessly impoverishing shopping binge and a pedicure. The final run-in between the two unsettlingly close-in-age (but light years apart in maturity, ye gods) women does make for a clunky delivery of a message that Welty implied so well that she certainty didn't need her main character to verbalize it. But their confrontation is so satisfying. It worked for me because grief and loss are not tidy processes. And it also served as long-awaited proof that I can still be positively smitten with a book despite a fist-clenchingly hateful character's prominent role in it.
Even with an ending that seems to mar an otherwise flawless reading experience for so many others, The Optimist's Daughter is beautiful and human and sings of what great writing can do when a great writer is firing on all cylinders. But it is a book that I just could not approach academically. It deserves to be savored and marveled at and its sharp edges absolutely should leave a few cuts and reopened wounds in its aftermath. It is a book that should, above all, be felt to be fully appreciated....more
I have one general, self-imposed rule about reviewing on this site: I write about the books I've read in the order I've finished them. By that logic,I have one general, self-imposed rule about reviewing on this site: I write about the books I've read in the order I've finished them. By that logic, I should be cobbling together my reaction to Hunger right now but I am so taken by this childhood staple that there's no room in my brain for anything other than uncontrollable glee over this book that another Madeleine has given to the world.
I never read this book as a kid. I didn't read it as a teenager or a college student. I read it for the first time with 30 coming at me like a crazed stalker who won't let a pesky thing like a restraining order stand in the way. And that did concern me, especially after half-heartedly slogging through the first four books comprising the Narnia Chronicles a few years ago before taking an indefinite break from tackling what should have been another enthusiastically remembered staple of a young reader's diet. I was afraid that I'd completely missed out on enjoying A Wrinkle in Time, a novel that I have heard praised up and down by so many people as the prime example of how good children's literature can be.
So I read it like I read as a wee lass who didn't realize that she was poised at the very beginning of what would become a lifelong pursuit of books fueled by an insatiable need to keep reading. I read well past my bedtime with one tiny light illuminating the path to somewhere magically transportive, knowing full well that the bookworm gratification far outweighed the inevitability of being a zombie all morning. I read it when I should have been doing something else as dictated by responsibility. I read to be told a story and to consider ideas I'd never come across in the world beyond two covers, sure, but mostly I read to give myself up to a writer's lush landscape, to lose myself in someone else's words. I read it to let my imagination run free through a universe I fervently and fruitlessly wished to be a part of.
And my adult self was just as enchanted as my inner child was. Sure, A Wrinkle in Time has its faults but I honestly couldn't tell you what they are because I was so thoroughly entertained, so taken with these characters I couldn't believe I could relate to in a way that was far less remote and removed than I expected (which is to say, at all) that all the things my nitpicky, pretentious post-English-major self would usually hone in on paled in comparison to the sheer enjoyment of the rush of letting a book completely suck me into its world to the point where the real world could have collapsed around me and I wouldn't've either cared or noticed because I was so wrapped up in this story.
On one hand, yeah, I do feel a little cheated that so much of what I needed to hear as a kid has lived within these pages all this time and I could have had such imperatives by my side to ease the pains of childhood's harsh but necessary learning experiences had I just shown even a fraction of some interest in this book. Among them: One's parents are not infallible. Weaknesses can become strengths -- nay, tools integral to besting some truly harrowing obstacles -- in the right circumstances. That sometimes you have to face down scary or unpleasant truths, and you're not excused from looking away or backing down just because the task ahead is either scary or unpleasant. It's better to embrace your individuality and not compromise yourself, no matter how uncomfortable you are in your own skin, than to mindlessly submit to the herd mentality and easy conformity. Just because something appears strange doesn't make it bad -- or all that strange at its core, after all. What things are is infinitely more important than what they look like.
But conversely? This book drenched my ordinary existence with fantasy's magic for a few days, and I'm sure it'll stick with me in the days to come. My first encounter with this book wasn't a foggily but fondly recalled childhood memory that's destined to be tarnished by the darkening cynicism of the years upon revisits from my older self. I got to experience the breathless wonder of a kid discovering an instant favorite for that very first time as an oasis of sheer escapist rapture in the face of a few intense work days and the humdrum nature of routine adulthood. And it proved to me that I don't always have to be such a goddamn snob about kid lit because when it's good, it is extraordinary. (And, really, let's be honest: Younger Me wasn't exactly the sharpest crayon in the tool shed, so who's to say I would have picked up on the more subtle elements that made this such a delightful read, anyway?)
Despite my natural inclination toward hyperbole, I am not exaggerating when I say I'm a little better for having read this book, one that I initially arrived at out of dubious curiosity and left in a state of giddy, childlike awe. And maybe a few tears....more