Every once in a while I get a yearning to read a graphically violent western novel that explores the indescribable nature of men who build their lives...moreEvery once in a while I get a yearning to read a graphically violent western novel that explores the indescribable nature of men who build their lives in the solitude of the vast American frontier. In general, this leads me to a Cormac McCarthy novel. Imagine my surprise when I came upon Lonesome Animals by Bruce Holbert, and felt my McCarthy-esque yearning somewhat quenched.
Lonesome Animals tells the story of Russell Strawl, an aging law(less) man who is called out of retirement to investigate some gruesome murders in the area. This setup has somewhat of a CSI feel to it, and honestly didn’t hook me right away. I’m not a big fan of whodunnits or procedural dramas, or mystery novels in general, and while this is the initial plot setup for the story, it doesn’t read all the way through as a simple mystery. Even on the first page, Holbert begins laying the groundwork for his larger investigation of men living in the remote world. “Their minds combat the silence and isolation inherent in such spaces by supplying their own narrative.” He is actively working with the idea of self-imposed narratives shaping the lives of the people who tell them, and how those narratives can lead people to very different end results. Holbert refers to this world (early-ish 1900s timeframe) as “days of righteousness and ignorance,” which feels very accurate. Numerous instances occur where laws have been viciously broken, justice needs to be upheld, and judgment on the guilty precedes any sort of formal accusation or trial. Strawl himself is a man who believes he is the law, an enforcer of laws in ways that could not legally be enforced. He has killed numerous times in his career, and thinks nothing of firing first and asking questions never after. In short, he belongs in this time, and could not belong in another.
While Strawl’s character is compelling, Holbert does overstep narrative bounds at times by heavy-handedly trying to build up Strawl’s mythical persona through downright inhuman farce: “He could recognize a footstep two miles off, and likely what made it, and he could do it in a rainstorm.” And later, “Even the preacher had cited [Strawl’s] mettle in a sermon." Strawl is also presented as a man who knows his Shakespeare and Mallory, who knows the distinctions between various symphonies, and yet a man who cannot quote the Bible, though nearly everyone else around him can. It reads as a stretch for a man who has grown up in the rural reaches of the nation, with no higher education mentioned. In truth, Strawl performs enough pseudo-incredible acts to build his elevated persona on his own, without Holbert stepping in through exposition to reinforce it in a way that eventually undermines it. As the novel progresses, however, you can see Holbert getting out of the way of the story more and more, and the characters taking over. I’m pleased to say the story ends further in the realm of artistic endeavor than I had anticipated after the first fifty pages.
Of course, the first fifty pages have their own sort of draw. It’s hard to look away from the gruesome murders with which Strawl is presented, mutilations of biblical proportions, men turned into otherworldly abominations, and Strawl being the hardened lawmen can get right in there and grab their severed heads and look them in their lifeless eyes and not retch. And least not in the beginning. The draw in the beginning of the novel has very little to do with Strawl himself. To everyone in the area, Strawl is recognized as “a mean dog with nothing to guard, until, of course, another mean dog showed up.” This line led me to wonder about Strawl’s motivation as a catalyst for his actions in the novel. If he truly has “nothing to guard” then why bother coming out of retirement to track down a killer who has no impact on Strawl’s life? This plays out to some satisfaction by the end of the novel, but in the beginning it leaves Strawl looking like a pawn for Holbert to push around his sadistic chessboard of murder after murder.
Holbert’s world in this novel, however, is a truly beautiful realm, one worth the entirety of the novel in itself. This is country Holbert knows well, and one that comes alive in every scene. This novel happens because of the country, and not the other way around, as is the case in so much lesser fiction. The influence of McCarthy is particularly noticeable here.
McCarthly is also present in Strawl’s trajectory as a character, one that takes him from the lawman who knows everything, to the resigned-to-the-fate-of-the-world man who gives up killing near the end in favor of maiming, letting those that pursue him live at the least, even if their lives will be forever changed by the barrel of his gun. It’s not No Country for Old Men, but maybe something closer to No Country to Mess Around in When the Right Old Men Are Still Around. This novel moves on a lot of different levels, and is one that asks those subtextual questions that cannot be answered, and does the right thing by leaving them unanswered at the end. There is no riding off into the sunset. There is simply an acknowledgment that the sunset will happen whether you want it to or not.(less)
This book makes me laugh every time I read it. The hilarious illustrations and the spareness of the writing work wonderfully together. I mean, how can...moreThis book makes me laugh every time I read it. The hilarious illustrations and the spareness of the writing work wonderfully together. I mean, how can you not laugh just looking at the cover of this book? Give me a break, right?
Nami has the rare ability to produce writing that reads urgently while conveying depth and power. This story, about a young Korean American girl named...moreNami has the rare ability to produce writing that reads urgently while conveying depth and power. This story, about a young Korean American girl named Joon growing up on the streets of 1980s New York, blazes by, and yet hooks barbs into the reader with each page turned. Some of the episodes Joon faces are disturbing and heart-wrenching, but the text avoids sentimentality, and carefully toes the line between drama and melodrama.
In the end, this feels like a story about redemption, and when it is possible, and when it isn't. Joon progresses from a seemingly lost soul to a person with drive and a desire to lift her life out of the dregs of self-destruction into the living, working world of normalcy. I really appreciated the lack of stereotyping Mun used in her characterization of Joon, who alternately despises the pity she receives, and craves the love associated with it. While many of her problems stem from her relationship with her mother, it's not a one to one relationship, which makes for great complexity and depth in her actions.
I know Mun is working on a new novel now, and if it comes off as well as this one, I'll be sure to read it.(less)
As with many literary journals, Willow Springs offers quality writing and an eclectic assembly of writers.
The most interesting part of this volume, ho...moreAs with many literary journals, Willow Springs offers quality writing and an eclectic assembly of writers.
The most interesting part of this volume, however, was the interview with Tim O'Brien. That's not saying much for the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in this issue, which left me wanting. A lot of the pieces were about women and pregnancy, so maybe I just couldn't fully relate or sympathize, but after a while they began to feel repetetive, rather than showing me various and extravagantly different takes on similar feminine themes.
The nice thing about Willow Springs is that it is short, and is published twice per year, which means another one will be out soon. I was satisfied enough with this, my first foray into this journal, to give it another go in the future.(less)
This was a surprisingly engaging read for me. One of the few books I've ever read in a single sitting. Johnson's main character Bob Grainier lives a l...moreThis was a surprisingly engaging read for me. One of the few books I've ever read in a single sitting. Johnson's main character Bob Grainier lives a lonely existence almost unbeknownst to himself. He is devastated by a life event, but keeps himself busy with menial tasks of basic survival to keep his mind occupied, and prevent himself from dwelling on the tragedy of his life. He comes from origins unknown to himself or anyone else, and leaves the world similarly unknown.
What struck me most about this novella is how well Johnson ranges between the deeply personal and the objectively observed. The narrative doesn't stop to allow the reader to wallow in sadness with Grainier, but allows us to see his strife, and how it affects him and slowly turns him into a man who is not entirely civilized. He goes from someone who can tenderly propose marriage to his future wife to a man howling with the wolves in the Idaho panhandle forest. The settings are briefly but richly described, and the characters are at turns pithy and laugh-out-loud humorous (unbeknownst to themselves in both instances).
In short, I'm ready to re-read this immediately, which is about the best compliment I can give any story.(less)
This collection of photographs was truly a pleasure to read and view. Huidekoper does a great job of letting the images tell the story, and not introd...moreThis collection of photographs was truly a pleasure to read and view. Huidekoper does a great job of letting the images tell the story, and not introducing any authorial bias to the history of Jackson Hole. I'm certain my love of the area influenced my appreciation of this book, but it is well done, and some of the photographs require multiple viewings due to their intense detail, sweeping grandeur, and the minutiae of human existence that is sometimes captured in a face or a gesture frozen on the page.(less)
Some really great work in this collection, and very few which I questioned. It's always great to read something that is purely about good writing, and...moreSome really great work in this collection, and very few which I questioned. It's always great to read something that is purely about good writing, and not marketability. This collection is all good writing, and the stories, essays, and poems, are far more enjoyable because of it.(less)
Having been to the Eiffel Tower last year, I figured I'd read this cool book about the tower, which was given to me by my wife as a souvenir from our...moreHaving been to the Eiffel Tower last year, I figured I'd read this cool book about the tower, which was given to me by my wife as a souvenir from our trip. Harriss does a great job of setting the stage for Eiffel as engineer, and placing the tower in its proper historical context. There are a lot of great old photographs of the tower under construction, and a number of interesting anecdotes surrounding the construction of the tower, and its subsequent reception by the people of Paris and the visitors to Paris for the 1889 World's Fair.
I'll freely admit that I read this book as a means of reliving some nostalgiac memories, but I'll also say that a lot of the earlier parts in the book were quite fascinating and new to me. The latter portions of the book tried set the Eiffel Tower in a modern day context, which didn't work for me, because this book was written over 30 years ago. I hear tell there is an updated second edition from 2008, which might be worth a read for the updated history.
Overall, a book read that kept me entertained for many evenings.(less)
This book has everything I want out of good fiction. A page-turning plot, conflicted characters, pure evil and the threat of massive loss, high stakes...moreThis book has everything I want out of good fiction. A page-turning plot, conflicted characters, pure evil and the threat of massive loss, high stakes, transcendent thematic undercurrents, and beautiful prose.
I'd say this is McCarthy's second greatest work, behind only the insurpassable Blood Meridian. Ed Tom Bell and Anton Chigurh (the protagonist and antagonist) are both layers upon layers of realistic character traits and actions and desires. The relentlessness and calmness with which Chigurh destroys everyone in his path is truly haunting, and Bell's inability to conceive of such evil in the world make for sky-high tension, and allow for McCarthy to explore some of the greater depths of both the evil in the world, and the direction the world is heading.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who has eyes in their head.(less)
As always with McCarthy, the prose were amazing, though I will say that at times I couldn't translate enough of the Spanish to know exactly what was s...moreAs always with McCarthy, the prose were amazing, though I will say that at times I couldn't translate enough of the Spanish to know exactly what was said, and I feel I may have missed some good lines of dialogue because of that.
There were multiple moments in this novel which were absolutely heartbreaking, and I don't say that lightly. I never feel like anything is truly heartbreaking in a novel, but this novel had at least three moments where I just felt sick for the main character.
McCarthy again tackles topics and themes that get at the heart of humanity, which is one of the reasons his work will live on into future generations. Nothing is trivial in his writing. Nothing is gloss. It's all meat and bones and living and dying and knowing what it means to live and to die.
I'm eagerly anticipating Cities of the Plain, which is next on my list of his work to read.(less)
As always, McCarthy's work is beautifully written in a flowing, unencumbered style that seamlessly matches the peaceful yet clipped drawl of the south...moreAs always, McCarthy's work is beautifully written in a flowing, unencumbered style that seamlessly matches the peaceful yet clipped drawl of the southern protagonists. He reaches for the epic and the eternal in each of his novels, and this one is no different. It does not match the force and transcendence of Blood Meridian, but it is still much better than most books on the shelves.(less)
Delbanco does a great job of placing Melville in the time and place in which he lived, and shows how his personal milieu contributed to his ideas and...moreDelbanco does a great job of placing Melville in the time and place in which he lived, and shows how his personal milieu contributed to his ideas and his fiction and poetry. Particularly interesting is Melville's personal struggle with his desire to believe in God, and recent findings in his day and age which pointed to a lack of God's existence.
The sections of this books center around Melville's major works, Moby-Dick, "Bartelby: The Scrivner," and Billy Budd. Delbanco shows with exacting detail why these stories not only stand the test of time, but also stand as some of the greatest literary creations in American history.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves Melville's writing, or anyone who doesn't understand why they should love Melville's writing.(less)