This is one of the most intense books I have ever read. But it's almost like it isn't trying to be intense; it's written in these short little snips—a...moreThis is one of the most intense books I have ever read. But it's almost like it isn't trying to be intense; it's written in these short little snips—a quote here, a paragraph there, a page and a half next—flowing from subject to subject, at a constant remove, an increasing-then-releasing philosophical distance, twisting in and around on itself (what a perfect cover design, BTW), yanking you into and out of its intensity so many times that it leaves you breathless.
This is Nick Flynn's memoir of co-producing a movie based on his previous memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. So it's a memoir of a memoir of a memoir. Which, I don't really think that's ever been done before, has it?
And the original memoir—to give the briefest, most reductive summary—is about Nick's time, after his mother's suicide, of becoming an alcoholic and drug addict, of living alone on a boat, of working in a homeless shelter for years until the day that his father, whom he hasn't seen in like a decade, wanders in in search of a room. It then proceeds to catalogue several years in the lives of Nick and his father (delusions of grandeur, a frightening mess, often psychotic and abusive and always unstable). Dad getting kicked out of the shelter (again) for being psychotic and abusive and unstable, Nick finding Dad sleeping on the street in the snow, Nick finding Dad a apartment, Dad crumbling and crazying further, Nick stumbling through his own erratic love life and consuming addictions, on and on and on.
Here is the question that this book asks, that the writing of this book and the living of its story forced the writer through: What would it be like to watch a movie being made of your life?
For most of us: disassociating and megalomaniac probably, in turns.
But what would it be like to watch a movie being made, say, of your mother's suicide and your dubious self-distancing from your father's dissolution? What if you had to not just watch Julianne Moore read your mother's suicide note and then shoot herself in the chest, but then give her notes on the tone of her voice, the quaver in the hand with which she holds the pen, the gun? What if you had to listen to the cruelest, most damning things your father ever screamed at you spew forth from the mouth of Robert De Niro, after bringing him to visit the shelter you once were complicit in kicking your father out of? What if you had to tell the props mistress what the pipe you used to smoke crack out of looked like, to hold its replica in your hand, after years of being clean and sober? How could you live through reliving the rawest, most harrowing moments of your life, your deepest sorrows actualized before you, take after take after take?
Does that give you some small idea about the intensity of this book?
And that's not all, not by a long long way. The book is also a thematic triptych, with the two other prongs being 1) an endlessly unspooling meditation on psychological and physical trauma and the recovery from same, with quotes and asides from literature, from history, from philosophy, and 2) the history of a glass-blowing family whose life's work was to make, out of glass, all the flowers in the (then-)known world—many of which are still on display in a museum in Boston where Nick's mom used to bring him as a child.
Around and around and around.
I only just closed the book minutes ago, so forgive me if I'm still reeling, still catching my breath, still parsing my overflowed emotions. I haven't yet gone back to reread all the gorgeous sentences I underlined, all the brain-twisting paragraphs I circled for return and reflection, all the heart-rending pages I dog-eared to quote from while trying to explain what a fiercely horrifying and spectacularly affecting book this is. I don't think I can go back in just yet. I will soon, I suppose, once the shimmer has worn off—but for now I'm going to go ride my bike around in the dark and try to process.(less)
Book #7 for Jugs & Capes! read a cleaner version of this review on CCLaP!
pre-read: I ordered this online and it arrived today -- not in a padded e...moreBook #7 for Jugs & Capes! read a cleaner version of this review on CCLaP!
pre-read: I ordered this online and it arrived today -- not in a padded envelope, as is customary, but in a big-ass box. I should have understood then, but not until I sliced the box open did I realize just how massive this thing is. Good grief! I need my reading to be portable, man! I read on the subway! So I took a steak knife and some old Vice magazine covers and DIY'd it into three somewhat more manageable volumes. I haven't had to do that since Infinite Jest!
post-read: Here is something that I have never thought about before: what is the onomatopoeic rendering of a sword pulled fast out of its...what is it, scabbard? Give up? It's SHING! I mean, of course it is, right? But who knew?
That was my first roundaboutly clever way of saying omg omg omg Jeff Smith is a fucking genius.
Here is my second, and it involves a visual aid: Just prior to the below panel, Bone has been told (by several people) that "winter comes on fast in these parts." Then what happens? This:
Yeah. Jeff Smith, man. Fucking genius.
Now I will talk about the book itself. As with a handful of amazing books I've read lately (The Instructions, for one; also Raising Demons), if you'd given me a plot synopsis before I'd started, I probably would not have been particularly inclined to pick this up. A trio of strange smooth androgynous bone creatures accidentally become part of an ancient war between the Dragons, the people of the Valley, and the God of the Locusts, and go on a quest to find the Crown of Horns, dodging Rat Creatures and Ghost Circles, aiding and abetted by by a sexy young farmhand and her ornery grandmother? Um, no thanks. I hate it when regular words get elevated via random capitalization.
But this, man, holy fuck. This is unquestionably and irrepressibly riveting, engaging, fascinating. There's an awesomely compelling plot, solid mythology and history, terrific characters, an amazingly vast scope, fantastic art, a pitch-perfect balance at all times between like pathos vs humor, action vs explication, dialogue vs art, cute animals vs bloody swordfights... Man. Wow.
A couple other things? Okay. In college I took a course on Lord of the Rings, and one of the things we discussed was how the language of the trilogy subtly reinforces the path of the books from sort of light middle-grade fantasy in the beginning to a high-art, mature epic by the end. I would say a similar thing happens in Bone, where it starts out all kind of silly fun and games, but the book and the plot and the characters all elevate and expand as things go on, opening and blooming into this vast, mature epic scope.
Also, not only does this book pass the Bechtel test (with flying colors), it's basically all women. The hero is a woman. Her great teacher is a woman. [Small by cryptic spoiler here:] Even the villain is a woman! In addition -- this I didn't come up with myself; thanks Jugs & Capes girls! -- there is basically no romantic subplot. How often does that happen in fantasy? I'd say close to never. But here, Thorn is way too busy being brilliant and strong and savvy and kicking ass and saving the fucking world to bother with something so trivial as whom to kiss. Yeah!
Okay okay, enough. But jeesh, what a brilliant, spectacular book. Who cares that it's too big to carry anywhere? Who cares that it's written for kids? Who cares that it's epic fantasy? It's fucking stunning. (less)
Also: this is my second review for CCLaP, and my first in a year-long series reviewing graphic novels. W00t!
This is the first in an essay series I'll be doing for CCLaP called "Jugs & Capes," where I look at graphic novels from a girl's point of view. I'm not going to say a "feminist" point of view, because I think that's a complicated word, one which any thinking woman has a complicated relationship with. And as I haven't got any kind of background in gender studies or feminist theory, I don't feel comfortable talking about what feminists think of this book or that one. I do, however, feel quite comfortable talking about what I think about something, so in this series I will happily do just that.
Asterios Polyp is a lush, fascinating, complex book. But it's that brilliant kind of complex which can be enjoyed on many levels, like Lolita, say, or The Metamorphosis, where, if you'd like, you can derive great enjoyment from the story on the surface, without doing a whole lot of delving. Or, if you're so inclined, you can peel back layers and study the symbolism and wordplay and big ideas, thus gaining a fuller, more multifaceted understanding of this deeply layered text.
We meet Asterios Polyp in the middle of a lightning storm. He is rumpled and exhausted, lying in bed in his luxurious but extremely messy apartment, watching what we assume to be pornography (we hear what is being said, but do not see the picture). Then a blinding flash of lightning illuminates the entire page, and we see that Asterios's building has caught fire. He makes a desperate search of his rooms, grabbing a few small items--a lighter, a pocketknife, and a watch--and dashes out into the storm. Over two lurid pages, we watch his apartment burn.
After this dramatic introduction, we begin to get to know Asterios. He is an architecture professor, but a "paper architect," meaning that none of his designs have ever been built. He has always been something of an aloof genius. He had a twin brother who died in the womb, and who will be our narrator throughout the book. He was married to a sculptor and fellow professor named Hana.
Asterios stands in the rain for a little while, watching his apartment burn, and then he goes to the Greyhound station and buys a ticket that costs everything he has in his walled. He rides until he gets to a small town, where he takes a job as a mechanic, and rents a room from his boss, a big man who lives with his voluptuous wife and their pudgy son. Asterios settles into small-town life, building a treehouse with his boss, discussing spirituality with his boss's wife, going to see a local band in a local bar. Everything he does is tinged with melancholy, with regret. Asterios is clearly running away from his past, but also trying to make some sense of it. The story opens out and out, in short vignettes, the present interspersed with flashbacks, dreams, and meandering philosophical asides.
Everything about Asterios Polyp is dense, and slow, and meticulously planned and executed. It is easily the most beautiful graphic novel I've ever seen. Each vignette has a specific palate, most using only two or three colors at a time--in fact, it isn't until the book's very last chapter that Mazzucchelli uses full four-color spreads--and there is no black in the book at all. Each character's speech is written in a unique font, one which is clearly representative of that person's personality. The story itself is full and rich, the characters multifaceted and real, and everything is augmented and reified by frequent digressions, both visual and described, on perception, human behavior, physics, philosophy, mythology, spirituality, metaphysics, and on and on.
The whole story is, of course, unraveling the mystery of Hana.
Early on, during an aside, Mazzucchelli presents a random group of people, each drawn in a different style and color, as a visual representation of how unique every person is. In the group (we find out later) is Hana, rendered in swirling, shadowy pink, and Asterios, in stark, angular blue. This turns out to be a running motif, and later, during Asterios and Hana's first meeting, his blue outlines begin to fill with pink haze, and her pink shadows become outlined in blue, until they both have nearly the same appearance. Much later, when they begin to argue, their realistic forms melt back into these elementals, he once again empty and blue, she returning to unbounded pink, demonstrating that, no matter how close two people can become, they are always, at heart, fundamentally strange to one another. This is of course terribly difficult to describe, and is a superb argument for the supremacy of the graphic novel form in this book.
On that subject, I will briefly describe another small section, one of the novel's most famous. It is an eight-page spread, with almost no words. The traditional panel structure is abandoned, in favor of three somewhat parallel rows of small boxes. The rows in the middle tell a consistent, simple story, wherein Hana has lost the puff of a Q-tip inside her ear, and has a mild panic until Asterios removes it with a tweezer. Above and below this throughline are a constellation of tiny instances of Hana's corporeal life: brushing her teeth, clipping her nails, shaving, vomiting, eating, dressing, undressing, masturbating, snoring, drinking, crying, laughing, leaving, smiling. It is one of the most stunning, affecting ways to render the memory of life's unnoticed moments, Asterios recalling Hana in all of her physical glory, beautiful and rumpled, joyful and sick, hungry and dirty. It is so humanizing, so plaintive, so shockingly mundane that it elevates Hana to something of a mythical plane. It's something that could never be done in prose, and to me it is the beating heart of the novel--echoed and augmented later by a pitch-perfect, harrowing, devastating, wordless dream sequence, which is rendered as an intricate dance opera.
I've read criticism of this book that takes the opposite view of the Hana montage, accusing Mazzucchelli as reducing her to a plot device, used merely to represent Asterios's development and emotional journey. But I think that's an unfair claim. Hana is a fully developed character--as is the book's whole supporting cast, most of whom are generally more sympathetically than Asterios himself. Certainly Hana is slightly romanticized, but this is a story told through a man who is desperately longing for the life--and the woman--he once had. I don't believe romanticization is inherently reductive, and I don't believe that Hana's character was secondary or subservient to Asterios's.
There is so much more to say about this dense, gorgeous, intricate book, but I've run out of space and steam. I couldn't recommend it more highly, though; this and Fun Home are the most astonishing graphic novels--and among the most astonishing books of any kind--I've ever come across. (less)
I'm too tired to organize my thoughts into coherent paragraphs, so instead here's a numbered list thingy, sorry if it's lacking in artistry.
1. I'm abo...moreI'm too tired to organize my thoughts into coherent paragraphs, so instead here's a numbered list thingy, sorry if it's lacking in artistry.
1. I'm about 99 percent sure I've read this before, but I can't remember much of anything about it. When I went to my library to find something else today, this just leapt off the shelf at me, so.
2. Not many books seriously grab you with the first five or ten pages; this one had me riveted by the end of the first paragraph.
3. Jim Dodge –- like Pynchon, though most of you don't believe me –- is so electrifyingly fun to read. Something amazing just shines through every paragraph.
4. Re: 2, that first amazing chapter? It involves a sixteen-year-old pregnant orphan breaking a nun's jaw. If that doesn't make you want to run out and get this book, don't bother reading the rest of this review.
5. I'm going to call this book mystical realism. I think this is distinct from magical realism because the first three quarters of the book is totally grounded in the consensus version of reality (that's good, right? I got it from Atmospheric Disturbances). But even when it veers into the mystical/magical, it's a shift that is wholly believable because of all of the mystical shit that went on before.
6. Since you probably don't have any clue what I'm talking about, I'll do a quick summary. This is the story of Daniel Pearce. He is the kid who the woman in points 2 and 4 is pregnant with. He grows up in a totally loving and wholly unorthodox environment, as his mom sort of runs a safe house for outlaws (but the honorable kind, the fascinating and brilliant and good kind). Everything is cool until mom is killed when Daniel is fourteen. After that he is taken in by the people for whom his mom ran the safe house: AMO, a loose network of alchemists, magicians, and outlaws. He falls under the tutelage of a series of incredible men and women, who each teach him various amazing skills (meditation and waiting, safecracking, drug and sex appreciation, poker and gambling, disguise, and finally vanishing). You realize that he is amassing the lessons he will need for the quest he's about to embark upon, on which he will both search for his mother's killer and steal a six-pound round diamond from the CIA.
7. I was going to say that this is a bildungsroman, but then I checked Wikipedia, and I guess it's actually a künstlerroman. Regardless, it's a sensational story of an incredible journey undertaken by an amazing hero and populated by a stunning array of fantastic supporting cast members.
8. The book is introduced by Thomas Pynchon.
9. Jim Dodge has a spectacular writing style, combining totally believable dialogue with amazing characters and plenty of beautiful description. As I said earlier, there's a certain kind of author who you can tell just had so much fun writing that you can't help but be just as enthused to read it.
I finished this book ages ago, but alas I have not had time to do up a proper review. It was spectacular, though. More soon, I swear.
Reasons wh...more I finished this book ages ago, but alas I have not had time to do up a proper review. It was spectacular, though. More soon, I swear.
Reasons why I already adore this book, even though I'm less than fifty pages in:
1. As I learned from bookfriend Brian, the other edition has a photo of a man on the cover, which it turns out (unbeknownst even to him) is Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snickett, a.k.a. my boyfriend.
2. The chapter titles are, depending on your preference, either twee and pretentious or quirky and adorable. Example: "How long a heart attack takes over three hundred feet, how much a spider's life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the Comrade in Chief of the unfinished can work."
3. The author in his back-cover photo looks just like that shrieking gay guy from American Idol who should have won but didn't, except a little less manufactured goth and a little more hipster adorable.
4. There is already a character who is in love with a river, another who wants to be Comrade in Chief of unfinished works and things never being over, and another who is called Auntie Typhoon because she moves so fast and with so much energy.(less)
Oh really, I don't know what to say. This book is magnificent, just magnificent, and this close to unbearably sad, most of it. The stories are incredi...moreOh really, I don't know what to say. This book is magnificent, just magnificent, and this close to unbearably sad, most of it. The stories are incredible, incredibly moving. The book itself is as gorgeous as the stories. The illustrations (minus one or two artists) are beautiful, and beautifully compliment the stories. The thick pages and fuzzy cover and big type and pretty pictures... it all combines to really force you to savor every aching minute of each shockingly great story. And I don't even like hardcover books! And I hate short stories!
It's late, I'm tired, and you probably already know whether you are going to love this book so it's not like I need to convince anyone. But good grief I loved this book. I already want to read it again. And again and again, any time I want to be a little sadder and a little more hopeful.(less)
I...I...I have to admit that I don't exactly know what to say here. This book was so good. So...so haunting and lush and aching and gorgeous and atmos...moreI...I...I have to admit that I don't exactly know what to say here. This book was so good. So...so haunting and lush and aching and gorgeous and atmospheric and devastating and suddenly, at times, shockingly sweet and wonderful and redemptive and pure. It was.
I don't want to tell you about the plot, except to say that it provided the perfect shadowy structure on which to hang these beautiful, amazing outsider characters. And I don't want to tell you about the characters, because they're too lovely for me to tarnish by synopsizing them here. And yes, I know everyone thinks I'm too gush-y, too overly adulatory, too all-forgiving and consistently amazed, to be taken seriously when I give a glowingly exuberant recommendation. So what do I do? I want to write something that makes you all go out and get this book. But I want to do it without giving anything away, without cheapening the staggering inventiveness, the like-nothing-else-ever-ness of The Boy Detective Fails.
I actually finished this book several days ago and have been trying to come up with a way to do this review ever since. I haven't come up with it yet. Maybe at some point I will, and then I'll update this to say the cleverest, spot-on-est things, the secret magic words that will make you all click open a new tab and buy this book right now, so you can shudder too, gasp too, fall in love with it too.
Until then, I guess you'll have to take my word for it....(less)
I've said before that Vice at this point has been so cool for so long that it's almost no longer cool to admit to liking it. But as I have also said b...moreI've said before that Vice at this point has been so cool for so long that it's almost no longer cool to admit to liking it. But as I have also said before, I. Don't. Fucking. Care. Vice is sheer and utter genius. There is no amount of irony or hipsterism or band-wagonry that could make me stop loving it.
So after the DOs and DON'Ts book, I just had to put this back in the bathroom. And how-lee shit, I forgot how mind-bogglingly incredible it is. After an interview with the three of them at the beginning, which reminds you just how scummy, scuzzy, drug-addled, and amazing they all are, we are right into "The Vice Guide to Eating Out." (No, kids, we're not talking about going to restaurants.) I realize I may be hazing into flaggable territory here (although I think it would be wrong to talk about Vice without getting filthy), but the advice given is so good, so clever, so dirtily, dirtily brilliant.... well, let's just say it kinda makes me want to find a lady to try it out on.
I will try not to detail every single article as I go through this masterpiece, but c'mon. The next one is "The Vice Guide to Sucking..." well, you know.(less)
There are no words to express how much I adore this schadenfreudian orgy, or my undying devotion to Vice magazine and Gavin McInnes, even though he is...moreThere are no words to express how much I adore this schadenfreudian orgy, or my undying devotion to Vice magazine and Gavin McInnes, even though he is clearly a dangerous, drug-addled, unbelievably mean prick, and did you hear that Vice finally kicked him out? Which is totally fucked, since he was one of the founding members and all that. Anyway, this book makes me HOWL with amazement, every goddamn time I read it. Please go buy it, then you'll understand.
In case you haven't seen this book or the magazine, I just want to give you a taste of it. I realize that it's a little silly without the photos, but I will try to describe.
WARNING: If you are easily offended, please fuck off to another review.
* DON'T [a pic of a skinny girl in real low jeans, viewed from behind, with the whole top of her thong undies showing:] The only guys that are into thongs are the guys that still think girls don't poo. The rest of us are like "get your fucking shit rag out of my face lady." Why don't you wear some used tampons as earrings while you're at it??
* DO [pic of a clean-cut guy in a black v-neck sweater over a pink button down:] Now we know what Outkast were talking about when they said "so fresh and so clean." You almost have to be a virgin to rock a matching pink belt and tie, but he's probably not. He probably gets a bananas amount of blow jobs.
* DON'T [pic of a guy in a jaunty hat, biting his bottom lip & looking upwards:] Professional dancers have got to go. They're always wiggling around like they have to go pee, even when they're at the dinner table. Then "Ring My Bell" comes on and they lean over going, "I don't know how you can sit still like that." Get the fuck away from me, snakey man.
* DO [pic of a cute girl with red terry-cloth shorts & a cut up black t-shirt:] These 70s high school shorts are going to be the death of all Western males this summer. Terry towel ones, Howe lee sheet. Can you invent some split crotch ones so we can do it without you taking them off?
* DON'T [pic of a chubby guy in a red t-shirt with a yellow lightning bold on it, holding a tiny white dog:] Guy, The Flash was the fastest man alive. You're a fat pig with a faggy dog. Get a shirt with food on it or something. Right now you're a parody of how slow you are.
*DO [umm, girl in a weird face-hood, all black clothes but white gloves, and a cardboard stereo hanging around her neck:] You know when you get really baked and you do a funny dance around the living room that makes your sister laugh so hard she pees herself? Some people like that moment so much they decide to do it forever.
* DON'T [woman listing dangerously, prob about to fall over:] Not since the alchemists has one group of people tried so hard to defy science. Dear junkies: You cannot sleep standing up!
This really is one of my all-time most favorite book ever. Or wait, that can't be true. Can that be true? It might be true. Should I hate myself if that's true? I don't think I care.(less)
This is one of those books that actually changes the cadence of your thoughts as you read it.... The author's voi...moreWhat a surprising and terrific book!
This is one of those books that actually changes the cadence of your thoughts as you read it.... The author's voice is so intensely urgent, so fervent and sure. Vim is the boy I would have been (and was!) in love with in high school.(less)
This is another book that makes me want to go back through and knock down all my five-star ratings, so it can be in a class all its own. Honestly and...moreThis is another book that makes me want to go back through and knock down all my five-star ratings, so it can be in a class all its own. Honestly and truly one of the most astonishingly beautiful things I've ever read.
Autonauts of the Cosmoroute is a memoir of sorts. Cortázar (the most devastatingly brilliant author of modern times, if you didn't know) and his wife Carol decide to spend thirty-odd days living on the highway connecting Paris to Marseille (for a local reference, it seems rather like the New Jersey Turnpike), in their red Volkswagen van named Fafner, going to two rest areas each day. They set up camp (as it were) at each one, finding the best picnic table at which to write, eat, talk, and lounge in the sun, taking time to explore the wilds of each locale. It's written as a travelog, with a list of how many shops, bathrooms, trees, waste bins, etc., etc., etc. can be found in each, and they include things like the temperature, which direction Fafner faces, and what they eat each day.
If this sounds a little childish and silly, that's exactly the point. Cortázar is a literary icon, an undeniable genius, but here we see him only as a man, a boyish man at that, impish and gleeful and silly, and his wonderful wife the same. It is just these two people, relishing the strangeness of the world in which they've decided to live, and the sheer joy of one another's company. It is absolutely stunning to witness the immense sense of wonder that they bring to even the most mundane endeavors, how much joy and love suffuses each of their days. This book encompases so much more than insipid handles like memoir or essay; it is a love story to each other, to friends, to every day, to the amazement that is the world. I realize I may have hazed into corniness here, but this book is like nothing else. It's like spending a month in a van with two of the most fascinating, happy, brilliant people you'll never be lucky enough to meet.
If I could, I would send a copy of this book to everyone I have ever loved, and everyone who needs to be reminded of how thrilling the world can be.
I guess I'm a little too young to have known better... What I though I knew of Peanuts was the tired, same-ten-or-so punch lines of this strip in the...moreI guess I'm a little too young to have known better... What I though I knew of Peanuts was the tired, same-ten-or-so punch lines of this strip in the Sunday Washington Post in the '90s. I always thought it was pretty stale and insipid.
When I read this collection, however, I was blown away. These early strips are punchy, bitingly clever, hilarious, and mean -- a clear predecessor to Calvin & Hobbes, my most beloved comic strip ever. Highly impressive.(less)
I love this book so much that I copied out some of the best lines in thick sharpie onto a shirt that I wore so often it's now terribly stained and fad...moreI love this book so much that I copied out some of the best lines in thick sharpie onto a shirt that I wore so often it's now terribly stained and faded and rather hard to read. An interesting cyclical thing, sort of, given the flimsiness of what remains of Sappho's works.
Also, I once had a writing teacher who said we should follow the "Sappho rule": every word of your writing should be so good that if there was a great flood or conflagration and only snippets of lines survived, there would still be great beauty and intensity in what was left. Kind of a tall order, but given the state of publishing today, I'd say it's needed now more than ever. (less)
This is one of the books I read that summer I worked at the kiosk in Central Park. Something I'd never have picked up otherwise that just blew me away...moreThis is one of the books I read that summer I worked at the kiosk in Central Park. Something I'd never have picked up otherwise that just blew me away. (less)
after reading: Oh my. Oh my goodness what an incredible book. Absolutely stunning.
Sometimes A Great Notion (which, btw, gets its title from the Ledbe...moreafter reading: Oh my. Oh my goodness what an incredible book. Absolutely stunning.
Sometimes A Great Notion (which, btw, gets its title from the Ledbelly song "Goodnight Irene") is the story of the Stamper family, renegade loggers in Oregon in maybe the fifties. It's an incredible family—Henry, the patriarch, the crazed, stubborn old goat who started the logging business; his son Hank (stoic, serious, earnest, proud, charming) and Hank's cousin Joe Ben (brimming with enthusiasm and joy and good will), who now run the company; Hank's gorgeous and quiet and wonderful wife Viv; and Hank's much younger half-brother Leland, an intellectual and a weakling who fled the rough workaday life as soon as he was old enough, and now lives in New York where he is finishing college. There has been a lifelong and mostly unspoken rivalry between the brothers, but because the Stampers have run afoul of the logging union, Hank and Joe Ben write to Leland, asking him to come back home to help make a big run.
The other important thing is that the entire town despises the Stampers. Currently all the loggers are on strike, but the Stamper clan is still working, and because of that, they are preventing the strike from ending, since there's no reason for the company that wants the lumber to negotiate with the union when the Stampers are doing all the same work. Everyone has always hated the Stampers anyway, because they are big and strong and stubborn and put everyone else to shame, and now the whole town is seriously turning against them.
Now look. That encapsulation is not only horribly unjust (a book of this magnitude deserves much more than a paltry surface summation like that), but also is likely to turn off your average modern reader. I know, I know, an entire novel about logging in the country? And a boring union struggle with a bunch of backwoods hicks? It wouldn't have caught my attention either.
But listen, there is so much more than that here.
Above all, this is a book about people, filled with some of the most fascinating and deeply drawn characters I have come across in a terribly long time. Even the supporting cast have rich backstories, like the town prostitute (Indian Jenny) who calls men to her bed by throwing clamshells and then buying them drinks; Biggy Newton, the overgrown class bully who has been beating up (and getting beaten up by) Hank since they were in school together; Les Gibbons, an old drunk made bitter by a life of grudges; Boney Stokes, Henry's alleged best friend, who wishes for his downfall more than anyone who hates him; Teddy the fat bartender who thinks he knows everything about the human condition as he waters down all the drinks.
And those are just the incidental characters. I haven't said hardly anything about Hank, Joe Ben, Viv, Leland, and Henry, because if I start writing about them, I'll end up transcribing the entire six-hundred-page book here. The complicated ways these people love each other, the intricate ways they fuck each other up... it is so intense, so believable, so real. It made me remember that one of the things we've lost in our pomo irony age is the serious emotional connection that it is possible to make with earnest, deep characters. Because I will tell you right now, this book made me cry. Not just cry but sob. In public. On the fucking subway. It crept into my dreams, the way really intense movies do, I kept repeating lines to myself and my friends, re-examining scenes I had read days ago to smooth them out and polish them and find in them more beauty and meaning and truth.
And listen: Kesey is not without his own literary machinations. For example, he manages to tell the story from several points of view. At once. As in, in the same paragraph there would be three "I"s: one in italics, one in parentheses, and one in regular type. But where with a modern-day irnoicist, this might come of as metafictional gimicry, here it felt not only smooth and effective, but necessary. Because everyone is thinking all the time, right? And all these characters have rich internal lives to match their rich outer ones, and so a major climactic scene needs to be told by everyone at once, just like it happens. Each narrative augments and enhances the other, making for a stunningly complete picture.
One drawback I did notice was the womenfolk. These stoic, complicated, multifaceted men were unfortunately not graced by the presence of equally complex women; most of the ladies in the book were shrewish, mute, or dead (though the dead were often even more powerful forces than the living). The only truly developed gal was Viv, and she was not nearly as thoroughly done as any of the men. One of her central decisions, one of the axes on which the entire plot turned, I found completely unfounded, unjustified, and almost insulting.
But. Ultimately that was not nearly enough to seriously detract from this utterly amazing story. I cannot remember the last time I was so thoroughly knocked out by a novel. I cannot believe how much this affected me.
mid-read: Ok, so this is seriously weird. While reading this book for pleasure, I am also proofing an erotic vampire romance novel for work (I wish that was a lie). And you would think that the stark contrast between, you know, amateur silliness and a serious work of literature would bring this book into absolute focus. And that's true, of course. But what's seriously blowing my mind is that there are all sorts of parallels between the two books, in odd and creepy ways. Both heroes are ruled by revenge, in ways that warp and twist their minds, ways that are meditated upon constantly, with, um, predictable and harrowing results, respectively (it's obvious which is which, though, right?). Anyway and also, the sections of each that I'm up to today both take place on Halloween. Maybe that's a small coincidence, but I think it's crazy.
old: This is one of my parents' favorite books. I read it in high school, and wasn't as impressed as I'd hoped. Soon I'll read it again, and see who was wrong, the 'rents or my younger self.(less)
I've given a lot of thought to this review: how to begin, how to describe this story, how to explain my utter adoration for it, and most importantly,...moreI've given a lot of thought to this review: how to begin, how to describe this story, how to explain my utter adoration for it, and most importantly, what words I might use to successfully make everyone read this book right now.
As you can probably imagine, I've come up rather short on all counts.
How do you talk about a book which seems to either redefine or cause to shrivel all the normal descriptors one attaches to works of fiction?
I mean, strictly speaking, you'd have to call this an epic fantasy, I suppose. Wait! You didn't let me finish. Because that's not it, not really. I mean, it's not really just epic, because it actually seems to encompass the whole damn world, to cover all of time, kind of. And it's more of an occult novel than a fantasy novel, if anything, I guess. I mean, it's a real story, set in real-life New York, partly upstate and partly in our big bad city. It just sort of so happens that, well, everyone in the story is part of the Tale, which only some of them can understand, an no one can predict, not really. See, now wait again! Because now you'll think it's some big silly meta thing, which it is not not not.
Look. Little, Big is a novel about a family. For real this time. It's about Smoky Barnable, our earnest, humble, erstwhile sometimes-hero. Smoky meets and falls in love with one of the most beautiful characters I have ever had the pleasure of traveling five-hundred-odd pages with, Daily Alice. Daily Alice lives in Edgewood, which is in upstate New York, and the book opens with Smoky making the trek upstate for his wedding. He has been given a series of inexplicable instructions (walk don't ride, wear clothing borrowed not bought, etc.), which he is doing his best to follow, though he doesn't understand why he must.
He must because it is part of the Tale. He has been promised to Daily Alice, kind of, maybe, or well, someone has been promised to her anyway, and she hopes it's him, but she has already decided that she will have him anyway, she loves him that much, even if he is not the one promised.
This is a taste of the world you step into in Little, Big, which goes on to follow Smoky and Alice and their families and their neighbors and their children and some of those children's children too, for four generations, backwards and forwards. It may well be a fantasy, but it is done with such a light touch, with such subtle mentions of fairies and talking fish and worlds within worlds, that you could easily miss or dismiss them, you could write them off as the magic-belief of children, or the ramblings of old women who have spent too long abed.
And I haven't even told you this yet, as this review draws longer and appallingly longer: John Crowley could have spent all five hundred pages just describing a single tree, and I would have followed him along every goddamn branch. Which is to say, this book is suffused, constantly and shockingly, with some of the most astonishingly beautiful prose I have ever read – equally as stunning when describing twilight falling over the City or the endless quest for love.
Here are some other wonderful things about this book:
* In the City, the true oracles are the bums who lurk on the subway in broken shoes muttering to themselves. * At one point a maybe-fake, maybe-evil baby (who eats live coals) is blown up. * The only tie to the world of 'them' – the creatures who may or may not know how the Tale will come out – is a deck of pseudo-Tarot cards, the reading of which takes at least an entire lifetime to begin to understand. * Included are some of the most powerful, most potent descriptions of taking hallucinogenic drugs that I have ever read (and that's not even what's happening in the story). * Did I mention the dialogue? It is so good, so true, so utterly believable. * This book made me – a sworn cynic, a jaded literary snob, a snarky bitch who doesn't even know what 'sentiment' means any longer – cry, several times. * Everyone in the book is named for nature: Violet Bramble, John Drinkwater, Marge Juniper, Mrs. Underhill, George Mouse, Lilac, the Rooks, the Dales, and on and on.
And now look. Because I know that I have done a woefully inadequate job of making you see, I am going to here transcribe a long-ish passage from the book. This takes place very early on, when Smoky and Daily Alice are still just falling in love. She is telling him about a time when she was walking in the woods just after a storm and saw a rainbow off in the distance.
"It was a rainbow, but bright, and it looked like it came down just – there, you know, not far; I could see the grass, all sparkling and stained every color there. The sky had got big, you know, the way it does when it clears at last after a long rainy time, and everything looked near; the place the rainbow came down was near; and I wanted more than anything to go and stand in it – and look up – and be covered with colors." Smoky laughed. "That's hard," he said. She laughed too, dipping her head and raising the back of her hand to her mouth in a way that already seemed heartstirringly familiar to him. "It sure is," she said. "It seemed to take forever." "You mean you – " "Every time you thought you were coming close, it would be just as far off, in a different place; and if you came to that place, it would be in the place you came from; and my throat was sore with running, and not getting any closer. But you know what you do then – " "Walk away from it," he said, surprised at his own voice but Somehow sure this was the answer. "Sure. That isn't as easy as it sounds, but – " "No, I don't suppose." He had stopped laughing. " – but if you do it right – " "No, wait," he said. " – just right, then . . . " "They don't really come down, now," Smoky said. "They don't, not really." "They don't here," she said. "Now listen, I followed my dog Spark; I let him choose, because he didn't care, and I did. It took just one step, and turn around, and guess what." "I can't guess. You were covered in colors." "No. It's not like that. Outside, you see colors inside it; so, inside it – " "You see colors outside it." "Yes. The whole world colored, as though it were made of candy – no, like it was made of a rainbow. A whole colored world as soft as light all around as far as you can see. You want to run and explore it. But you don't dare take a step, because it might be the wrong step – so you only look, and look. And you think: Here I am at last." She had fallen into thought. "At last," she said again softly.
See? See? They're just ordinary people, to whom (maybe? maybe not?) extraordinary events are always happening.
Well anyway there you are. If I can't convert you, and Mr. Crowley himself can't convert you, then you are just unconvertable and I'm done trying. But if you are even the tiniest bit intrigued by my very long, rambling, adulatory speech here, please, I beseech you, go get this amazing, astonishing, riveting, spectacular book. It really will blow your mind. It did mine. (less)
This is the kind of book that makes me want to go back and take all my 5-star ratings down to 4, so that giving this one 5 will mean more. This is the...moreThis is the kind of book that makes me want to go back and take all my 5-star ratings down to 4, so that giving this one 5 will mean more. This is the kind of book where, even while I was reading it, I was thinking about how I would read it again, slower, more thoughtfully, with intense-er concentration. And so I did; I read it twice through, one after the other, and good fucking grief, it is so good. The second time maybe a tiny little bit less so because I already knew so many of the good parts, but still, oh my god please read this book.
He does this stunning thing where all of the chapters / stories have the same metaphors and themes, sort of. Like in almost each story there's a someone dirty and sad, carrying their shoes, who will fall in love or be fallen in love with. And there's magpies and volcanoes and the Snow Queen and taxis and other amazing sort-of recurrences, or maybe more like fragmented repetitions, because of course each time it's a little different. Anyway, although it's a novel, the chapters live on their own, and if I cannot convince you to read the whole book, please please please will you just hurry up and read the chapters Particularly, Soundly, Not Particularly, and Often.(less)
Update the second, March 08 Well, well, well [she says, much subdued, pensive; not at all her normal, boistrous, effusive self].
Here we are, March 1, 2...moreUpdate the second, March 08 Well, well, well [she says, much subdued, pensive; not at all her normal, boistrous, effusive self].
Here we are, March 1, 2008, and I have just closed the cover of Against the Day.
I suppose it's hard to even talk about a tome like this, a thing of this range and scope and breadth. I'd really like to use all the superlatives I can, and then invent new words to describe Pynchon and what he does, because he really is like nothing else ever. In fact, I've been saying that to all my friends over the months I've been ensconsed in this book, that what Pynchon writes are not novels, in any traditional sense, I think. They just flagrantly ignore the rules of structure, and sense, and momentum.
If you'll indulge me, I've come up with a sort-of analogy for this. It's like, instead of reading a book, you're like reading a chunk of a river. (Bear with me here.) Whereas normally a book will progress, go beginning-middle-end, this one is like a million rivulets, each slipping overunderthrough one another, that you follow for a second, or a couple pages, until they go back under and get lost in the general cacophony. Lots of the characters even have names like that -- Stray, Reef, Lake, Heartsease, Ljubica (which means 'love'), Ryder -- that just slip through your fingers as you say them, as the characters go somewhere else and you lose track. There are no beginnings or ends to a river (see? I'm bringing it back), you just watch as different bits of it flit by.
I mean, how can I read something else now? This book kind of disassembles your concept of reading, of how to read, of how to go through a book. In a way I feel like I should just keep reading this, over and over, for the rest of my reading life.
Also, because of all this, 1,085 pages is really nowhere near enough. There is so much more to the lives of these characters! I mean because the book really encompases the whole world, right? So everyone is still living somewhere, in the world between the pages (because, oddly, I don't know that anyone of note actually dies in this book), and I want to know what they do with the rest of their lives, who they go on to love, how they fight, what cities they stumble through, how they find their circuitous destinies. (This is insanely presumptuous, but I think Pynchon might be fond of that thought, since so much is made in this book of people doubling, and living many lives, in and out of the world, or the 'Counter-Earth', or within photographs, or after having Zombini do some kind of spell, or that thing with the Iceland spar, which I don't know if I really get.)
I guess I'm babbling. But I think that's fitting too, for this book. I've gotten a lot of different kinds of shit from different friends for my rapturous devotion to Mr. Pynchon. I don't care. I also don't care that this is probably a sort of frustrating review, which doesn't say much at all about the book. I also don't care that there is obvs so much in this book that I didn't get, and would never get, even if I did spend the rest of my reading life on it. I don't care. I am fiercely in love with Against the Day. I am fanatically devoted to Thomas Pynchon. I am so, so thrilled that I read this book.
Update, Jan 08 In case anyone's keeping track, I am just a smidge over halfway through this fucker. And as a diversion, I present you with a few random samples of Pynchonery:
"Abruptly, sweeping into the scene like an opera singer with an aria to unload, here came 'Mr. Ace,' as he called himself. Glossy black eyes, presented like weapons in a duel. When he smiled, or attempted to, it was not reassuring."
"It was all he could do not to reach for her, gather her into some kind of perimiter. But the moisture in her eyes was shining like steel, not dew, and nothing about her trembled."
"You could hear faint strands of music, crazy stuff, banjos and bugling, trombone glissandi, pianos under the hands of whorehouse professors sounding like they came with keys between the keys."
"Dally's voice was hard to pin down to any one American place, more of a trail voice with turns and drops to it, reminders of towns you thought you'd forgotten or should never've rode into, or even promises of ones you might've heard about and were fixing to get to someday."
First entry, Nov 07 wooooo hoooooooooo!!!!!
(that's me going down the rabbit hole, as it were, into the depths of Pynchonalia)
Also, it's so convenient that the folios of this book are such that there are five blank pages at the back. Now I can (with no shame whatsoever) keep a list of all the characters! How the hell else am I going to make it through a 1,085-page monstrosity? (less)
Ok so I was smoking at work and I accidentally finished After Dark and I realized that I didn't have anything to read at lunch or on the subway ride...moreOk so I was smoking at work and I accidentally finished After Dark and I realized that I didn't have anything to read at lunch or on the subway ride home, and I started getting a little upset, thinking about the entire train ride with nothing to do but stare at hipsters and be bored. I cannot handle being bored. So I was thinking I'd maybe go to the Strand, but that would be silly becuase I hate going there during the daytime, and anyway I have only like 6,000 books at home that need to be read and I really didn't need to buy another one.
And then, fate intervened. The women at work asked me to go buy some dumb book for them at Barnes & Noble. I haven't even set foot in a B&N in months, and I haven't bought a full-price book in maybe six years. But, oh, surrounded by so many sweet, bright, crisp books! Arranged in gorgeous rows and on pyramid-ed tables... it was more than a little intoxicating. So the deal was that I would not deviate from my prescribed path (down the main aisle, to the info desk, to the children's section, to the registers), but if, while on said path, I came across a book I had been really really wanting to read, I would put it on the credit card, since I'm already in debt anyway from going to Toronto.
Long story short (ha ha), Here They Come was just chillin' on a table in the center aisle, waiting for me to come along and grab it. And holy fuck was it the right choice. Phenomenally great book, narrated by this precocious 13-year-old girl living in Manhattan in the 70s. The characters are fantastic, the story is great, the setting is of course terrif. Wow, I loved this book. (less)
Oh oh oh it almost hurts me how much I love this book. Baricco can make anything, anything into gorgeousness.
City is a brilliant amalgam of stories,...moreOh oh oh it almost hurts me how much I love this book. Baricco can make anything, anything into gorgeousness.
City is a brilliant amalgam of stories, including a comic book, a boxing match, lectures by myriad professors on things like curves in nature or Monet's Waterlillies or intellectual dishonesty, and of course the main story, which is about a boy-genius, his two imaginary friends (a giant and a bald mute), his absent military father and his institutionalized mother, and his kooky fantastic governess who is writing a Western. Yes yes, a Western, which in itself is maybe one of the most beautiful, clever stories I have ever read.
I. Love. This. Book.
Good grief go out and get a copy and read it already.(less)