I've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches aI've not come to adore Westerns through the traditional means. I was not weaned on a diet of John Wayne and Bonanza. Growing up, those dusty ranches and hard-bitten cowhands seemed too similar to the world as it appeared in the town around me to keep much of a hold upon my imagination. I was always more into interstellar travel than I was in leading a wagon train over the Rockies, more George Lucas than Louis L'Amour, or at the least more Kurosawa than Leone. You would never find me spitting chew at a rodeo.
Yet somehow along the way those borders between genre fiction started melting away for me. I could appreciate that Han shooting Greedo is an entry in a long canon of gruff antiheroes attempting to live in a lawless world according to an unstated moral code of their own, first of whose silent proclamations reads "survive at all costs." Moral flexibility! Ain't it grand?!? We can root for both Cristian Bale, the honest homesteader, and Russell Crowe, the outlaw with a heart of gold, without necessarily addressing the dicey choices that have brought both men to such desperate measures.
This is a worthwhile point of view to bring into Patrick DeWitt's The Sisters Brothers, a novel so cinematic in its renderings that I have been helpless to deny the incessant Hollywood allusions plaguing me as I concoct this review. There are no white knights within these pages though, just fellow humans all struggling to claw their way to the top of the dung heap. The titular siblings, Eli and Charles Sisters, are shooters for a West Coast power broker known only as The Commodore (a name which couldn't help but make me think of James Coburn every time he was mentioned). As oddball duos in fiction are often known to be, Charles feels a natural affinity for the work of assassination, never batting an eye when breaking an oath or beating a woman, while younger brother Eli finds himself questioning his occupation for the first time as he and his brother journey from Central Oregon to gold rush-era San Francisco and dreaming of a day when he may hang up his spurs for good.
Strangely, what this book reminded me of the most (outside of all the literary allusions to McCarthy and Faulkner that are lobbed its way) is Jim Jarmusch's 1995 oddball Johnny Depp Western, Dead Man, with accompanying Crazy Horse soundtrack. There's the wanton disregard for natural life, when an entire family of beavers are poisoned by toxic runoff, there are psychotic fur trappers, and, of course, there are more corrupt men and women than you'd find outside of a James Ellroy novel. This is a blessing and a curse, though, as readers can thrill on DeWitt's particular renditions of these genre tropes while at the same time reconciling themselves to the knowledge that nothing too unpredictable will happen.
Still, with all of this fantastic window dressing, at times I found myself flipping ahead to see how many more pages I had in each (admittedly short) chapter. The pages with Eli questioning his motives for being a hired gun can get to be especially tedious, if only because the arguments evinced are as familiar as the very necessity of having a fallen character seeking redemption for readers to relate to. An enormously fast read, and one which I am certain to recommend to my book group next month, it leaves me, more than anything, interested in what Patrick DeWitt will write for us next....more
There are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and sceneryThere are few authors that can rival John Steinbeck. Some get close. Some writers are able to conjure a near perfect description of nature and scenery so that you want to reach into the pages to pluck a ripe peach from its tree and sit along the banks of a roaring set of whitewater. Some writers are able to shine their light deep into the heart of the human spirit and bring out whole those points of commonality that all humans share, to speak some amount of truth as to the human condition. Few are the authors that can do both, and fewer still the authors that can do so without making you feel as if you're sitting at a Sunday mass listening to antiquated ideas of fire and brimstone. John Steinbeck is the rare author who can see all, the beauty and the horror, and render it in terms that stokes the fire in people's hearts with pride of what we're capable of in our better moments as well as blanket us in the shame of what we do in those less thoughtful moments.
I've read quite a few of Steinbeck's books by now, from the Cain and Abel allegory of East of Eden to the sweet whimsy of Cannery Row, but have never felt mentally prepared enough to tackle Grapes of Wrath. Not that the writing is particularly dense or the themes are too high-minded for me to wrap my mind around, but because I knew the story (it's been told in so many different formats from the aural to the cinematic)and knowing the story I knew that reading the actual words would fill me an almost unbearable amount of rage and unless I were prepared to funnel that rage into some sort of real world action then it would just coil and burn inside me, charring me with the self-destructive nature of impotent anger.
Because what makes Grapes of Wrath so powerful is that, while fiction, it recounts events that have happened in this country before: families torn from their lands by ever-hungry banks, uprooted from their very sense of history and identity, hurling themselves across the nation in the hopes of a better life just around the corner only to find themselves despised and spit upon wherever they go, treated worse than animals by those who are only one missed paycheck from realizing just how close they are to joining the Joads. There are families turning on families, workers undercutting workers, and no prayer in the world with the power to right these wrongs as long as people are unable to focus on anything other than their short-term self interest. This has all happened before and it is happening again. Sure, it has not yet reached the fever pitch that Steinbeck illuminates in his recounting of Okie workers pushed to the breaking point by the all-consuming maw of capitalist greed, but it wouldn't take much for us to get there.
Steinbeck's opus may be some of the finest writing I've yet come across of how a family who has never given more than a passing thought to capital, banks, or usury find themselves becoming acutely class conscious as they are hunted and harried across the land. His chapters, alternating between the specific story of the put-upon Joads to the more general musings of how workers are pitted against one another and how institutional power makes every attempt to keep them down lest they realize their own strength and organize for justice, are whip smart- never preaching when all he has to do is show. Like East of Eden before it, my copy of this book is well dog-eared and underlined, page after page now heavy with ink, but I think the most resounding passage for me occurred early in the book:
"The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration. The driver could not control it- straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the cat', but the driver's hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tract, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver's hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled him and muzzled him- goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain, it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.
He loved the land no more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor- its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of it detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades- not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combing with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders- twelve curved iron penes erected in the foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumbled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the see, or lusted for the growth. Men ate what they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses."...more
For whatever reason, India has always held a special fascination for me. From the first time that Kipling's descriptions of the richness and scope ofFor whatever reason, India has always held a special fascination for me. From the first time that Kipling's descriptions of the richness and scope of the Grand Trunk Road in Kim first caught my young ear the thought of India has possessed a fairly good chunk of my imagination. I know that it's not rooted in fact so much as it is in vague imagery of the exotic culled from Hollywood cliches and Mother Theresa infomercials. These are colonialist visions of riotous colors from half-remembered dreams in which Hanuman spirits Sita from the citadels of the evil Ravana even as the British Raj brings the nation under its yoke in order to propagate the poppy that will be so instrumental in bringing the Chinese under the heel of Western powers. Knowing that I'm not even glimpsing one quarter of the reality of what daily living is actually like, I devour book after book set in these tropical metropolises to sate my hungry imagination as I scrimp and save in order that I may someday make it to the teeming streets of Mumbai or the spice loving kitchens of Chennai.
Having read quite a few different works from authors whose minds have also been ensnared by this particular corner of the globe, ranging from the classic to the contemporary, I've come to find that there some very definite archetypes that writers tend to fall back on when writing about the subcontinent. There are those that tend to write about the white experience in India, from the outright xenophobia of Dan Simmons' Song of Kali to the genteel indictment of Colonial racism offered up in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India. There are those who write about the Indian immigrant experience, of those who have left their homeland behind in search of the better life just across the horizon, from Monica Ali's Brick Lane to Jumpha Lahiri's Namesake, though in my opinion most successfully in Salman Rushdie's oft-maligned opus, The Satanic Verses.
Finally, and most germane to the purposes of this review, there are those who like to revel in the dirt, disease, and decay of India. Those who seem to take a particularly perverse joy in the rampant poverty, splashing titillating descriptions of the sewage and sweat and rickshaws and families packed one atop another in slums awaiting one middling earthquake before collapsing like so many stacked playing cards. To them it seems that endemic poverty and disease is a fun bit of shock to throw at readers, poverty porn to warm the cockles of Western readers as they imagine themselves living in such a world. Writers of this sort tend to be of a couple sorts. There are Western writers whose characters tend to be of the damaged-yet-benevolent white man variety, such as Lin the junky-doctor in Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram or the naive-yet-effusive travelers of the sort that Will Rhode described in his forgettable Paperback Original, who use decadence as a spice, to add a bit of thrill to their pulse-racing pages. Then there are the Dickensian writers, authors like Q&A's Vikas Swarup, who love few things more than crafting another rags to riches tale of crossing caste boundaries and living the American dream, and it is this category that Aravind Adiga's Man Booker winning The White Tiger sits squarely within.
Being the memoir of Munna/Balram, a precocious (of course) boy from the darkest depths of rural India who, yearning to break free from the trappings of caste poverty, never stops angling for a better job, a better lot, a better life. First moving up the ranks of the tea shop he is destined to serve in until he dies, then striking out for the big bad city wherein he endeavors to find the respect that his politico bosses, by dint of status, wealth and corruption, are afforded so wantonly. As he comes to understand the many ways in which he is ritually humiliated and kept subservient, something almost resembling class consciousness grows in his heart until he finally slits his master's throat and disappears with a large sum of cash. These aren't spoilers, the narrator himself admits as much within the first few pages.
The writing is nothing special to write home about, others have described the same scenery with as much (or better) aplomb- Adiga's descriptions have none of the poetry and imagery that Arundhati Roy brings to her every sentence. The real substance of the story lies in Adiga's chronicling of the resentment that builds within his upwardly mobile limo driver, listing every slight and backhanded insult in such a way as to make the inevitable murder so much more palatable. After a particularly bruising experience in which Balram is forced to sign a fake confession to protect his master's wife, I wanted to skip ahead just so I could taste the bloody revenge before its appointed hour.
While a worthwhile enough read, this Booker winner pales when stood along winner's of years past. Adiga is following the path that such luminaries as eternally-reviled Rushdie and fantastically incendiary Roy have trod with such alacrity, but his brief effort will likely have little of the staying power that any of the other award winners named herein have carved out for themselves. Still, it was enormously entertaining and would be ideal to wile away an afternoon at the beach....more
I have to admit that I had not heard word one about this book before its delightful cover caught my eye on the Powell's sale shelf and somehow leapt iI have to admit that I had not heard word one about this book before its delightful cover caught my eye on the Powell's sale shelf and somehow leapt into my hands. I mean look at it- stark black and white coloring with just a splash of red- how could it not grab my attention? Likewise, I had very little knowledge of Cooperstown, New York, (aside from it being the home of the baseball Hall of Fame) before cracking open the pages of this volume.
So imagine my surprise when I learned in the opening pages that Cooperstown was founded by the father of American author exemplar, James Fenimore Cooper. Far from simply writing about Mohicans, though, Cooper had also written a series of stories set in a thinly-veiled surrogate of Cooperstown that he referred to as Templeton, a conceit that author Lauren Groff has adopted to tell her touching tale of people searching for identity in their twisted family histories, the bonds of a small town, and a prehistoric lake monster whose death forms the allegorical backdrop of this book.
Willie Upton returns to her hometown of Templeton in a bit of disgrace- she is pregnant with the spawn of her research adviser and may or may not be wanted for attempted murder after trying to run her adviser's wife (who also happens to be the Dean of students at her university) down with a small single-engine Cesna. Needless to say, she arrives home in a bit of a funk. To help draw her out of her pity party of one her mother, Vi, dangles a tantalizing carrot in front of her: Willie is not the result of months-long dalliance with an ever-changing assortment of men in a 1970s San Francisco commune, but a one-off affair with a Templetonian shortly after she had returned to her home town. Refusing to give more than the solitary clue that her father is related to the town's founder (and Vi herself) through an unreported branching of the family tree, Willie finds herself digging deeply into the town, and her own, history using all of her carefully-honed research skills.
Part family drama, part detective novel, The Monsters of Templeton is a fun read that really helped draw me out of the reading funk I had been in for a time before this. Groff draws in all sorts of fun arcana from Cooper's past, even throwing in a real life representative of Davey from Mohicans, which now has me wondering how much Cooper had been drawing from real life when he was writing. Unfortunately, Groff leaves any questions of historical accuracy to the academics here, she is more interested in crafting what turns out to be an enormously captivating tale of family secrets and redemption found generations later. For a spur of the moment purchase, The Monsters of Templeton turned out to be quite the engaging read. I will certainly be searching out more of Groff's works in the time to come....more
If this were any other author, I would have probably rated it higher. But it's not just any author, it's Christopher mother-f*cking Moore who wrote thIf this were any other author, I would have probably rated it higher. But it's not just any author, it's Christopher mother-f*cking Moore who wrote this and my expectations were high. Because when your previous works include a new gospel of Christ's missing years, the story of an antiques dealer turned soul stealer, and a trilogy of the most delightfully irreverent vampires ever to drain a rat for blood, you have some mighty big shoes to fill.
So what went wrong? Well... it's hard to put my finger on it but it just... well, it just wasn't funny. You'd think with a cast like this- Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Camille Pisarro, Claue Monet, basically every impressionist you could think of- that the laughs would come ripping off the page. I mean they're debauched painters who get roaring drunk at every opportunity and spend nearly every waking minute in brothels! How could you miss with this? By focusing instead on the love story of a moon-eyed baker who wants to be a painter and his model/lover/muse/tormenter who is hiding a mysterious past and is accompanied by a penis-waggling cretin known only as the Colorman.
It's not that it's not entertaining. It definitely has its moments of ribaldry and I found myself chuckling at bits, particularly when the young painter visits a professor who is attempting to train rats and mice to reenact the chariot race from Ben Hur, but for the most part I was just left with a feeling of *meh* throughout most of these pages. I don't want to say that Moore has lost his magic touch, but Sacre Bleu just does not live up to his previous feats. I'm hoping that this is merely a stumbling block along the road to much greater hilarity down the line....more
I always find it worth remarking upon when a book I pick up completely at random complements whichever book I've just finished. So it was with ThreatsI always find it worth remarking upon when a book I pick up completely at random complements whichever book I've just finished. So it was with Threats, which is so similar in theme and style to Viola di Grado's award-winning 70% Acrylic 30% Wool that I think a case could be made for plagiarism had the books not been published nearly simultaneously in different countries and written in different languages. I'm just going to have to chalk it up to circumstances similar to those that created the pairings of Armageddon & Deep Impact, or Dante's Peak and Volcano. I had heard nothing about Amelia Gray's first novel before the very alluring cover caught my eye whilst perusing my local bookseller a few days before Christmas and a salesgirl, seeing me transfixed by the cover, had told me that it was "probably the best thing I've read all year, a really twisted story of loss and mourning." That was all I needed to hear, Threats needed to come home with me.
It wasn't until I was about 40 pages into it that the similarities started smacking me in the face. David, a dentist who lost his license after a malpractice charge, is struggling to cope with the death of his wife, Franny, under some rather mysterious circumstances. Or, at least, we're meant to assume they're mysterious as nobody ever quite gets around to explaining the cause of death. All we get are David's scattered recollections of the early days of their marriage, some vague allusions to a childhood trauma that may explain why the police are sniffing around David like he's a suspect, and the threatening notes of the title that appear in the most unexpected places- in a bag of sugar, behind several layers of wallpaper that had been hung years ago, typed on a receipt stapled to the back of a painting.
Like 70% Acrylic, the chapters are exceptionally brief and resist any impulse the author may have had toward linearity or cohesion. David, like Camelia in 70% Acrylic, is coping with the shocking loss of a family member by retreating into his house, his world, the only thing he can guarantee is safe and secure and, like Camelia, he is an incredibly unreliable narrator, constantly injecting his warped viewpoint into the scene and causing havoc among his supporting cast. As I read through the parallels continued to pile up until, ultimately, I reached the end and was left in the same state of bewilderment I had when finishing Di Grado's novella.
Though the writing was, at times, brilliantly stylized and many of the writer's ruminations on love and loss were especially evocative, I still can't say that I enjoyed reading it. It started off rather good but as the story wound down to its final pages and characters I had thought were stable begin to go off the rails as thoroughly as David, it just grew to annoy me. Gray is a hell of a talented writer and I'll likely continue to read her works in the future, but Threats just left me a bit disappointed at the missed potential. ...more
I'm often leery when friends of mine lend me their favorite books. How soon do you expect me to read this? You know I have a stack of books the size oI'm often leery when friends of mine lend me their favorite books. How soon do you expect me to read this? You know I have a stack of books the size of an end table still to read, right? What if, though this has never before happened in the 25+ years I've been a regular reader, I should lose or damage the book? Most intimidating of all, what if I don't like the read or what if I find it to be so bad that my opinion of you as a friend is changed due to your devotion to these pages? After more than a few heated arguments about the merits of a particular book with friends I've had to place myself at a bit more of a remove from things. It's this same reason why I never recommend my favorite books for monthly book club reads. I take reading more personally than most, apparently.
So it was with much trepidation and nervousness that I accepted my friend James' copy of this book. Battered and well worn, with passages underlined and bracketed from multiple read-throughs, this was obviously a well-loved book. I felt as though we were at a turning point in our friendship and this slim volume would be the pivot upon which the whole relationship would turn. So I guess it's a good thing that I ended up rather enjoying this light-hearted romp.
Taking place in Prohibition-era New York City, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo charts the rise of ragtime and jazz as an infectious thought meme of liberation and fertility called Jes Grew beating its tattoo of freedom from hierarchical society straight from the heart of ancient Egypt. Regular readers of science fiction will recognize many similarities with the idea of the Sumerian namshub that Neil Stephenson used with such aplomb in his seminal work, Snow Crash. Arrayed against this meme are all the conspiratorial powers of white society, from the simple Freemasons to the Knights Templar, who will stop at nothing to discredit and destroy this nascent movement before it infects New York at large and undoes centuries worth of work at bringing order to society and keeping the dark races under their thumb.
I know, this sounds so very much like every other work of conspiracy fiction ever published and I would have rolled my eyes so hard at some points that they would have dropped from my head and onto the table, if Reed's style weren't so whimsically refreshing. He doesn't take his words too seriously and neither should the reader. Throwing in a great amount of history with references to Marcus Garvey's Back to Africa movement and cameos from major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Reed paints an eminently enjoyable take on race in Western history and, between bits of buffoonery, offers a solid critique of the subtle racism that infects so many of our actions to this day. I especially enjoyed his group of art thieves who would liberate indigenous icons from those graveyards of culture, museums, and return them to their rightful homes among the tribes of Borneo or the descendants of the Olmec. I kept hoping for an Indiana Jones moment where a character could say that "it belongs in a museum" only to get pistol-whipped and told that it belongs to the people who created it.
There are a lot of references packed into this slim volume and one reading can not hope to catch all of the nuance of Reed's work. I see now why James had so thoughtfully underlined many of his favorite passages, it's a great book to quote in conversation and one that I've found myself thinking about quite often in the days since finishing it. I'd never read any Ishmael Reed prior to Mumbo Jumbo but he's certainly an author I'll be on the lookout for in the future....more