Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014)

My long-standing book club (go DAFFODILS!) selected an uncharacteristically hot off the presses read for our next book, Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle (2014).

Our narrator is Sean. When he was a teenager an accident (or maybe "accident") with a gun left him disfigured. He leads an isolated life as an adult, partially filling his time and making a little money running a play-by-mail adventure game called the Trace Italian, a game that he created while recovering from his injuries in the hospital as a teenager. In the game, players find themselves in a post-nuclear apocalypse society, trying to save themselves by finding and getting into the Trace Italian, a safe and complicated series of chambers somewhere underground in the middle of Kansas. We learn that the adult Sean is being sued because two players of his game, a young couple, took the play too literally and one died and the other nearly died somewhere in the wilds of Kansas.

While that covers most of the plot of the novel, the real action is happening inside Sean's head as we move back and forth between his pre- and immediately post-accident teenage self and the man he has become. The accident and his isolation in some ways have frozen him in time and the feelings that brought him into this state are never that far from the surface. As the book moves on, we see Sean interact with his nurse, an old friend, his mother, and (hilariously) some teenage hoodlums out behind the liquor store. All of these interactions serve to deepen Sean's character and, to me at least, highlight how he is ultimately happy in his isolation. There are no pat answers or neatly tied up endings here, but some nice character development and a very real and effective world. 

If you are a music fan, you may recognize Darnielle's name as the core of the band The Mountain Goats. I haven't listened to much of Darnielle's music (although I just listened to this and the three songs pick up several themes from the book), but a bunch of my friends really like him, so I feel like I should give him some time. This book (his first novel, although he's also written a non-fiction book [correction: this was actually a novella!] about Black Sabbath for the 33 1/3 series), proves that Darnielle is creative in at least two modes, particularly seeing that it was nominated for a National Book Award. I can't even be irritated at this guy for his dual success -- the novel really is quite good.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792)

In my continued slow trot through the books in Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, I've come to The Works of Samuel Johnson: With an Essay on His Life and Genius, by Arthur Murphy. Volume 3 (1792). One thing to know about Samuel Johnson is if you have decided to read his complete works, there are going to be a lot of words to read. Luckily for this reader, Johnson is a pretty amazing writer and this third volume of his collected works continues to demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of his interests.

In this volume we get a couple of pieces on Greek theater, some extensive notes on Shakespeare's Macbeth (and some well-placed jabs at other editors of Shakespeare), an extended series of essays from The Adventurer, and the philosophical novella, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

While all these works have something to offer, the writing that is most accessible to the modern reader can be found in Johnson's contributions to The Adventurer, a bi-weekly newspaper to which he contributed a number of pieces, both signed, anonymous, and under the names of various characters. These brief essays hit on innumerable topics, contemporary, historical, and literary, but the most fun of all are when Johnson takes his pen out of its sabre and points it at various irritating types of the day. Consider, if you will, the essay from Tuesday, December 11, 1753 in The Adventurer Number 115. You can read the whole essay here (and you should!), but here's a taste:

Some indeed there are, of both sexes, who are authors only in desire, but have not yet attained the power of executing their intentions; whose performances have not arrived at bulk sufficient to form a volume, or who have not the confidence, however impatient of nameless obscurity, to solicit openly the assistance of the printer. Among these are the innumerable correspondents of publick papers, who are always offering assistance which no man will receive, and suggesting hints that are never taken; and who complain loudly of the perverseness and arrogance of authors, lament their insensibility of their own interest, and fill the coffee-houses with dark stories of performances by eminent hands, which have been offered and rejected. 

It's amazing to me that Johnson can still be so relevant (or, I guess, that humanity is so consistent) that 261 years later, these same words could be written about innumerable tweets, facebook posts, and blog comments.

And how about this section from The Adventurer Number 137:

It is difficult to enumerate the several motives which procure to books the honour of perusal: spite, vanity, and curiosity, hope and fear, love and hatred, every passion which incites to any other action, serves at one time or other to stimulate a reader.

Some are fond to take a celebrated volume into their hands, because they hope to distinguish their penetration, by finding faults which have escaped the publick; others eagerly buy it in the first bloom of reputation, that they may join the chorus of praise, and not lag, as Falstaff terms it, in "the reward of the fashion."

Some read for style, and some for argument: one has little care about the sentiment, he observes only how it is expressed; another regards not the conclusion, but is diligent to mark how it is inferred; they read for other purposes than the attainment of practical knowledge; and are no more likely to grow wise by an examination of a treatise of moral prudence, than an architect to inflame his devotion by considering attentively the proportions of a temple.

Some read that they may embellish their conversation, or shine in dispute; some that they may not be detected in ignorance, or want the reputation of literary accomplishments: but the most general and prevalent reason of study is the impossibility of finding another amusement equally cheap or constant, equally independent on the hour or the weather. He that wants money to follow the chase of pleasure through her yearly circuit, and is left at home when the gay world rolls to Bath or Tunbridge; he whose gout compels him to hear from his chamber the rattle of chariots transporting happier beings to plays and assemblies, will be forced to seek in books a refuge from himself.

Don't let the old-timey language dissuade you, folks, this is amazing stuff.

Volume 4: here I come!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf (2012)

In the graphic novel My Friend Dahmer (2012), Derf Backderf tells the very unique story of his time as a teenager in a small town in Ohio, just outside of Akron. Most things about his high school experience are pretty ordinary -- cliques, drinking, boring teachers, clueless parents, but one thing, in retrospect, eclipses everything else: Backderf went to high school with Jeffrey Dahmer, who would go on to become a serial killer.

As you might expect, Dahmer was not a super popular guy in high school. He was, in fact, just one or two rungs up from the very bottom. Backderf and his friends, however, were amused by Dahmer's antics and incorporated him into some of their stunts and inside jokes. You get the impression from the book that rather than feeling he was being made fun of, Dahmer liked hanging out with these guys, even though the "friendship" was mostly based on Dahmer acting like he was having convulsions and yelling out some catchphrases.

As they move through high school, Dahmer's connection to his friends and a regular life becomes more and more tenuous. He is drinking heavily, experiencing upsetting thoughts of sex and death, dealing with his parents' ugly divorce, and is eventually left alone in the house when his mother (who has had frequent mental health problems herself), moves back to Wisconsin with his younger brother. Then things go really bad.

Backderf, of course, had no idea how bad things had gotten with Dahmer and no way of knowing how bad they would get a decade later in Milwaukee, and much of the book gets into Backderf's feelings about Dahmer now and how he can reconcile his own memories of being a teenager with the life of Dahmer.

The book is thoroughly researched -- through published interviews and books, Backderf's own documentation, and conversations with mutual high school friends -- and satisfyingly footnoted, which gives the reader a lot of context without bogging down the panels. The art has personality and the book has a great pacing. You can tell this isn't Backderf's first time at the drawing board, and he gives his story the space and seriousness that it deserves.

[Finally, I'm not always a fan of video trailers for books, but it kind of works in the context of a graphic novel..]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unmentionables by Laurie Loewenstein (2014)

I received a copy of Laurie Loewenstein's debut novel, Unmentionables (2014) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The combination of historical fiction and women's movement details were right up my alley, so the Early Reviewer selecting robot did a good job there.

The book starts us off in a small town in Illinois on the Chautauqua circuit in 1917. Marian Elliot Adams is a veteran speaker with the traveling educational / entertainment spectacular that comes through town every year. She speaks to the crowd on the somewhat salacious topic of revolutionizing women's undergarments. She believes that simple is best, and that women who aren't weighed down with pounds of petticoats and unnecessary straps and belts will be more able to participate in everyday life and healthier to boot. Most of the crowd is a little scandalized by her talk, but the town's widowed newspaperman Deuce Garland, and his step-daughter, Helen, are intrigued by this commanding and confident woman.

While bending down from the stage to talk to Helen after her speech, Marian slips and violently twists her ankle, forcing her to spend some unexpected down time in the small town recovering with Deuce's next-door-neighbor, Tula.While she is in town, she makes a big impression on the lives of Deuce and Helen, and sets events in motion that ripple through all their lives over the next year.

I have to admit at first this book didn't really grab me. It was nice enough, but the characterization was a little broad and the plot followed predictable cliches of women's rights, fighting for justice, and cloaked Midwestern racism. But then something happened -- Loewenstein isn't afraid to let her characters develop a little more deeply than you'd expect, and the action of the novel sometimes slides away into unexpected territory. Particularly in the case of Helen's solo move to Chicago and her experience in the workforce and Marian's work with the Red Cross in France during WWI, the plot of the novel explores the darker side of justice and good works and ultimately earns the right to its rather romantic (and sweet) ending. While the book would have been stronger for me without the foundation of a traditional and predictable set of plots and characters, Loewentstein ultimately goes beyond that and gives us a strong and surprisingly moving novel.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Never-Ending Poem by the Poets of Everything by Mary Strong Jackson (2014)

I was lucky enough to be sent a free copy of The Never-Ending Poem by the Poets of Everything by Mary Strong Jackson (2014), mostly because I am married to Mary's son. Don't let that familial relationship distract you, though, I would like this book-length poem even if the author wasn't my mother-in-law.

This volume of poetry consists of a series of inter-related poems that each flow into each other by picking up a word or phrase from their predecessor and then giving a focus to their successor. The author invites the reader to continue the poem after the book ends, even providing some blank pages to aid in keeping the never-ending poem going.

There are a lot of gems in here, but one of my favorite poem/verses is:

The poet of oceans
meets with the poet of prairies
to talk about expanse
waves
horizons
sunsets
food given to nourish
storms that toss one's home about
the poet of prairies says
"It is the same for me"
(p. 31)

I've read quite a few of Mary's poems and I always admire the straightforwardness of the observations and the combination of the prosaic everyday world with a somewhat philosophical eye. Some of the poems are funny, some are heartbreaking, and all feel more than anything else, extremely real. This is a good read, and one that can be dipped into at any point and returned to again and again.

You can read more of Mary's poetry and other writing on her website: http://strongjacksonpoet.wordpress.com/

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian (1947)

The lovely Bridget lent me her copy of Foam of the Daze by Boris Vian (1947) [L'Écume des jours originally and also translated as Froth on the Daydream]. I'd never heard of this book before the recent Michel Gondry adaptation (Mood Indigo -- which I really enjoyed), but apparently it is something like The Catcher in the Rye of French literature -- wildly popular among young people for generations and extremely influential.

I'd like to quote my own dear husband, Dr. Mystery, in his review of The Wanderer by Alain-Fournier: "In classic French tradition, this book is about nostalgia, idealized romance that turns tragic once it becomes real, the romanticism of adolescent desire and yearning and the painful loss of that desire when adulthood hits, and the impermanence of childhood idylls. The book is melancholy and concerned with loss, but it's not heavy-handed or oppressive and is often funny." In fact, I could just quote Dr. M and end this review right now, because in classic French tradition, this book hits all those same points.

Colin is rich and lives in a fantastical apartment. He is best friends with Chick, who is obsessed with Jean-Sol Partre. He also has a cook, Nicolas, who is extremely creative in the kitchen. He has mice that are his friends and a piano that makes cocktails as you play and everything is great except that Chick has recently fallen in love and Colin hasn't. He meets Chloe at a party, quickly decides he is in love with her, and they marry. Everything is great until, on their honeymoon, Chloe takes sick. Colin spares no expense in her treatment, but soon goes through all his money and has to sell his pianococktail and get a job, which nearly kills him. Chloe dies, they bury her in the saddest (but also funniest) funeral of all time, and that's just it.

As a girl who likes tragic endings, this book has a lot to recommend it. I am glad that I saw the film before the book, because Gondry puts a lot more life into Chloe and the other female characters, who are all pretty flat in Vian's novel. I was also able to really delve into the extensive (and helpful!) footnotes as I read and didn't have to worry too much about getting taken away from the plot or the characters, since I was already familiar with them from the film.

This was an interesting one, and definitely one of those rare cases where both the film and the book are worth experiencing, in either order.

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Liars' Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr (1995)

I had a mental block against reading The Liars' Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr (1995) since 1995 was right in the heart of my time working at Barnes and Noble and The Liars' Club was a runaway best seller. Anything that was a best seller in the late-1990s makes me wary after all the time I spent sticking on and taking off 30% and 20% off stickers and restocking the shelves at the front of the store. My DAFFODILS book club, however, decided to read something from the 1990s and when this was was suggested, the nearly 20 years since I had to deal with those discount stickers disappeared and I finally felt ready to dive in.

This, the first of Karr's three published memoirs (along with other essays and books of poetry) tells the story of her mother, her father, and the childhood she and her sister had in Southeast Texas and (for a short period) in Colorado. Karr grew up near Port Arthur, close to the gulf, and right in the middle of the oil industry. Her father worked for the oil company, as did most of the people in her town (fictionally called Leechfield, but actually the town of Groves, between Port Arthur and Beaumont). Her mother was an enigmatic artist and voracious reader from west Texas who lived for several years in New York City and did not mix well with the other women in the town. Her father was a favorite among his friends at the Legion and known for his ability as a storyteller and his propensity for fighting (and for undoubtedly winning those fights). Both of them drank and both of them had tempers, but what really made things unstable was the depression and mania of Mary's mother, Charlie.

The action of the book takes place mostly in the early sixties, when Mary is about 6-8 and her sister, Lecia, is about 8-10, although the hard things that happen to them and their resourcefulness and (particularly in the case of Lecia) stoicism, often make them seem older. While there are plenty of pleasant and often funny memories of their time together as a family, the burdens placed on Lecia and Mary to hold their mother together, Mary's sexual abuse by two men outside the family, and Charlie's several very real (and dangerous) mental breaks can sometimes make this a pretty rough read.

The storyteller, of course, is a grown up Mary Marlene Karr and she never really lets the reader forget that she is a grown woman looking back on her childhood. She also admits when she doesn't remember something, when she might be remembering something differently than how it happened, and when her sister would undoubtedly correct what she was saying -- this gets around one of my big problems with many memoirs: the adult writer's tendency to make things seem better (or worse) than they really were and the reliance on memory (particularly a child's memory) as if it were fact.

The last section of the book jumps forward to the 1980s and brings some adult context to the lives of Mary and Lecia and some explanation and mellowing of her mother and father. I'm interested to read Karr's other memoirs, one of which covers her adolescence and early adulthood and the other her recovery from alcoholism and conversion to Catholicism. If the straightforward, funny, and sometimes brutal narrative voice of The Liars' Club is any indication, the following memoirs should be just as piercing and full.