Tag Archives: Books

Caribou Island & the Joy of Second Hand Books

What a pleasure it is to actually justify bringing home books by the sleigh-load! There have been far too many times down the years where I’ve bought a bunch of books only to have them collect dust on my shelves. Not only was I aware that I was wasting money, but I felt like a failure as a reader. I became resigned to the idea that I just couldn’t commit, that laziness and impatience were permanent fixtures of my personality. As I’ve stated in other posts, 2017 has really eschewed those fears. Human behavior is not something innate; none of our traits are set in stone. Instead behavior is like clay. Everything can be molded, smoothed and sculpted into a different shape. This year, I discovered my productivity- and it’s very much a work in progress, something I have to constantly manage and amend.

Last weekend I finished reading David Vann’s novel Caribou Island. It’s another title I got from our favorite Houston book retailer- Half-Price Books. This summer saw me leave that place with bigger stacks than your momma’s Ihop brunch plate. The only difference this year was that I knew I could justify every purchase and finish every book. Looking back on our frequent trips there, it occurred to me how well second-hand bookstores go with my new approach to reading. I’m trying to branch out as much as I can. My mission this year has not only been to read as many books as I can, but to read from as many voices as I can. With second-hand bookstores there’s no assurance you’ll find what you want. I found that many times I went in and searched for a tried-and-tested author, only to not find him or her among the publications Half-Price had in stock. So then I’d look around and inevitably leave with a novel by an author I had never heard of. Half-Price Books has helped me discover new voices in world literature. When I was in Crete I read Bone Horses by Lesley Poling-Kempes, another purchase from Half-Price, and then I moved onto Caribou Island. Both novels serve as examples of books I took a chance on; glancing briefly at the covers, scanning the blurb without retaining much of it, and then of course checking the pages to see if the print wasn’t too small. And I’m so happy I did roll the dice on them, because now I can’t imagine my life without these authors.

But what is Caribou Island about? In a nutshell, it’s a story about a deteriorating marriage. Irene and Gary live in the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, in a landscape that draws you in with its stunning scenery, only to reveal that its wildness is not an idyll, but something bitter and unforgiving. The novel sees them attempt to build a cabin and live a frontier lifestyle without electricity, heating any modern comforts, in the hope that such an existence will rekindle their love. The novel also features Gary and Irene’s son Mark and daughter Rhoda, now grown-up and still living in and around the city of Soldotna. If I had to describe this book in one word it would be dark, with the runner-up being beautiful. There’s no graphic sex or violence, and it’s not particularly seedy in any way. It’s not dark in the visual or horrifying sense. Instead it’s just depressing. Don’t get me wrong, I loved this book. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I felt extremely invested in the characters, especially Carl and Rhoda who are perhaps the most sympathetic figures. But when I was finished I did feel quite sad. I could feel the exhaustion of the characters weighing on me like a baby panda, dragging me down. The novel explores the dark places of the human psyche. It’s about emotional trauma and the breaking point it takes us to. The characters in this book are self-loathing, disenfranchised, and discontented. Everyone seems to have a chip on his or her shoulder, and half of the characters are cheating on their significant others or contemplating doing so. It’s a book that makes readers uncomfortable because of the dark conclusions the characters reach about the institutions of marriage and family. Hell, one character is so lost for meaning in life that he consciously devotes himself to having as much sex as possible, regardless of the consequences on his partner. It’s a book about failed dreams and broken promises. For David Vann, the American Dream is a desolate wasteland. Everyone in this book is searching for meaning in some way, and lashing out at each other when they don’t find any.

I would definitely recommend this novel and it’s easily one of the best I’ve read this year. The dialogue is snappy, intelligent, and engaging, and the descriptions of the Alaskan wilderness are truly beautiful. This book is a must-read for any of you interested in marital, familial and domestic dramas!

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Bone Horses by Lesley Poling-Kempes

I picked up Lesley Poling-Kempes’ novel Bone Horses whilst my roommates and I were on one of our signature runs for second hand books and Vietnamese smoothies in South Houston. At the time I had just finished Liane Moriarty’s masterpiece The Husband’s Secret and I was looking for something similar. A space had emerged in my heart that I knew must now be consistently filled. I wanted a female author and a story with an interesting female protagonist. There had to be a dark mystery of some kind, a certain amount of tension and suspense, and the characters had to be realistic, imperfect, relatable and struggling with complex issues. Moriarty is perhaps one of the most perceptive writers I have ever read from, and she is unmatched when it comes to creating sharply-drawn, fascinating characters that you form strong, emotional attachments to. Charlotte- the protagonist of Bone Horses– definitely met the requirements for the kind of Moriarty-esque heroine that I was looking for. Poling-Kempes does a good job in her creation of Charlotte and a couple of the other characters in this book. I was very much invested in their troubles and you get the feeling the author has spent a lot of time very carefully and expertly crafting their individual story arcs.

Bone Horses did contain the ingredients I was looking for in my post-Moriarty reading phase. It’s a book that contains mystery, romance, and well-drawn characters. But a book is never how you imagine it beforehand. Lesley Poling-Kempes took me on an unexpected journey that was fresh and original in its own right. I bought it because I thought it looked similar to The Husband’s Secret, but now that I have finished it the differences between the two are beginning to emerge. Although the characters and their internal conflicts are a great strength of the novel, I think I prefer Moriarty’s approach. The Husband’s Secret was more of a page-turner for me, and I think it’s the sense of intimacy I felt with the characters, the way it explores the psyche of modern day suburbia and the mundane. Charlotte, on the other hand, starts out as the type of character endemic to Moriarty’s works- she’s a sweet, predictable and unadventurous schoolmarm from the East- but she unravels and flourishes in a beautiful way as her life is upended with her trip to an environment that is rustic, mystical and ancient. The New Mexico desert is rendered in exquisite detail. In every review I have seen for this novel, the setting is held up as the crowning achievement. The Lagrimas Valley is a character in and of itself and its landscape permeates every aspect of the story.

In a lot of ways it seems like the novel is a love letter to New Mexico. Undoubtedly the most interesting thing you will take away from this book is how memorable the land of the Lagrimas is. It’s a book rich with atmosphere. The culture and geography of New Mexico are also woven into the narrative, which I thought was a nice touch. The herbal tinctures and native remedios play an important part in the lives of the characters. The animals- particularly horses and ravens- also play a huge role in this novel. The book has whimsical, mystical feel to it that is reflective of the author’s perception of the desert as a spiritual place. Events in the books seem to have the cyclical quality of fairy tales, and throughout the book there are subtle incorporations of magical realism. Everything in the land- its plants, rivers, birds, horses and peoples- seem connected in this magical way.

The book has an intriguing mystery, but the emphasis is really on the journeys of the characters and where they end up. It’s not really a book that’s concerned with twists; instead the revelations are teasing and gradual. We know who the killer is from early on in the book, even though none of the characters do. The villain is truly deranged and vile- the kind of character you can’t wait to get put down with extreme prejudice. He reminds me of the ghastly, hellish antagonists of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor. I hated the character so much I grew impatient with his passages in the novel. He’s not someone I can sympathize with in the slightest. I did feel like the sense of imminent danger could have been handled better, but like I said, the book is primarily concerned with character development above all else.

I do recommend this book, so I won’t spoil it for you. Instead I will leave you with the core themes of what Poling-Kempes is interested in working with. It’s a story about family, the passage of time, the grieving process, and new beginnings. What I found particularly intriguing was the way the book explored the ideas of memory and local history. Charlotte finds that the story of her life is inextricably linked to this small town in the New Mexico outback, that her tragedy is shared with the community that seems to have been waiting for her. The events of the book seem to belong to everyone in the town, and it comes back to what I wrote about in yesterday’s post about the book’s treatment of love, and the idea that everything in the world of the Lagrimas Valley is connected. Poling-Kempes writes “I began to think about how the history of a place is fashioned by what people choose to remember. About how what we come to accept as the real story is unavoidably shaded and shaped by the subjectivity of emotion and memory” and it’s a facet of the human condition that I have long been interested in- the way we make our own truths, and how we are unable to separate our experience from the emotional viewfinder through which we interact with it.

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

In 1964 Philip K. Dick published the novel Martian Time-Slip. It’s the first of PKD’s works I’ve ever read, and I’m convinced that it’s my favorite thing I’ve read this year. I’m not sure how I avoided an author of the stature of PKD for so long- especially given how prolific he is. Most of you probably know him as the guy that wrote the novels The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?– both of which are ingrained into the public consciousness through successful adaptations to film and TV respectively. I was always aware of Philip K. Dick- you can’t really claim to be a voracious reader, particularly of science fiction, if you aren’t- but I had simply never been tempted to check him out before. This year I’ve made a return to science fiction and thoroughly enjoyed my reading of Robert A. Heinlein and Gene Wolfe. PKD is as big as it gets when it comes to science fiction, and despite passing away in 1982 his works are adored to this day by a large number of fans. He is one of those authors, like Franz Kafka or Flannery O’Connor, whose body of work is known for its distinctive style and atmosphere. His legacy is such that certain stories can be characterized Dick-esque. What an unfortunate term. But you get what I mean; the popular movie franchise The Matrix was famous for evoking the atmosphere of PKD stories. PKD was concerned with the themes of authoritarianism, the nature of reality, drugs, mental illness, transcendental experiences, and altered states of consciousness. These were the ideas he was obsessed with and continually explored throughout his vast bibliography, and all are present in The Martian Time-Slip.

I want you to read this book if you haven’t, so I will offer you a short premise of the plot with which to tease you. It’s the near-future (which, when this book was written, was the early 1990s) and an overpopulated Earth has started colonizing the solar system. Our story takes place on Mars- a cold, dry and arid world where isolated homesteaders live in various, independent colonies that each represents a vested interest back on Earth. The UN keeps the peace between them, but the de facto power on Mars is the powerful Water Works Union, headed up by the tyrannical Arnie Kott. The novel follows several characters that are each affected by Arnie’s lust for power: Jack- a schizophrenic repairman, Silvia- his lonely wife, Doreen- Arnie’s mistress, and Manfred- an autistic boy who is tortured with the memories of his future self in a potential timeline. The crux of the novel is about Arnie trying to use Manfred to see into the future and thereby further his own interests and maintain his corporate monopoly, and how this affects not just them, but everyone around him. The book presents a fascinating and memorable depiction of schizophrenia, and there are several passages where the nature of reality gets twisted. We are left wondering how much of it is strictly in the mind of the characters. I would argue that a central theme of this novel is communication. Silvia is lonely, addicted to drugs, and struggles to communicate and understand her husband. Jack’s passages are perhaps the most interesting as we see how difficult it is for him to communicate with others; there’s a haunting, nightmarish quality to the book’s portrayal of schizophrenia that is at once chilling and sensual. And much of the book’s action sees the various characters attempt to communicate and understand Manfred, who is non-verbal. I have two cousins who are autistic, and I myself was suspected of having ASD when I was a child, so I found the novel’s focus on autism as being a communicative impasse to be very interesting. Obviously, the book was written in the early 60’s, so I wouldn’t come to this book with the hope of truly learning anything about autism, but it’s just interesting to see someone write about it from that time.

But why did I love this book so much? The first post I ever made on this blog was a review of The Fifth Head of Cerberus and like this one, it was a book of philosophical complexity that explored interesting ideas. However that book was not really a page-turner; I enjoyed it the same way I enjoy William Faulkner- it was fulfilling, enriching and it left me with the feeling of having completed a mental workout. What was so special about Martian Time-Slip was how much of a page-turner it was for me. Sometimes the more complex science fiction novels fall in to the trap of excising the human element of the story. The Fifth Head of Cerberus was great but it was also bleak and unsentimental. What I love about Martian Time-Slip is that not only is it highly nuanced and thought-provoking, but it’s a book with a lot of heart. I found myself deeply invested in the characters and their situation, and I read this book very quickly. It was the kind of book where you stay up another half-hour in bed and squeeze out one more chapter, because you have to know what will happen next and whether your favorite character will be ok. And that’s why, so far, this book is probably my favorite that I have read this year. I will definitely pursue more of Philip K. Dick’s work.

 

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Any other PKD fans out there? Let me know in the comments what your favorite novel of his is! If you enjoyed this post and want to see more content like this, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe. Thanks for reading!

Our Only May Amelia & The Children of the Mountains!

On February 13th 2009, a documentary aired on ABC called “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains”. It was a feature that was at once harrowing and fascinating. In it Diane Sawyer shines a light on the existence of a people seemingly left behind by the rest of America- the impoverished communities of Central Appalachia. I was introduced to this documentary in January of 2015, after a long day of showing one of my American friends around London. After an exhausting day of sight-seeing, she decided to show it to me, remarking that she had been shown this documentary in high school and it had always stuck with her. After watching it we got to talking about poverty, life on the American frontier, and the truths and untruths of the “hillbilly” culture. And that’s how I ended up getting recommended Jennifer Holm’s novel Our Only May Amelia.

Now it’s August 2017 and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it. Those of you who’ve read the book might laugh at how she and I made the connection to Children of the Mountains. Our Only May Amelia is a children’s novel and takes a lot after Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods…if reimagined by a suicidal depressive. This book is actually quite dark considering it was written for 9-year olds. We see everything from dead babies to sexually-repressed lumberjacks slitting up lonely maids so vehemently as to render their corpses unrecognizable. The book gives an uncompromising look at the harsh realities of life on the frontier. We see families ravaged by disease, boats capsizing into icy waters, and lonely men hanging themselves in the woods. And all of this is narrated in the sassy voice of the protagonist, May Amelia Jackson. This is what really makes the book, its punchy and upbeat narration. Holm really has a talent for putting herself in the mind of a child, thinking as they do, and talking as they do. Which is just as well, because without May’s narration this would definitely not be a children’s book. The narration is the most important aspect of the novel- it’s what stays with you after you put it down. The narrative voice of May is memorable and well-written, and the book is not so much about the events as it is May’s interpretation of them- that is to say, her character development.

The premise of the novel is as follows: May is the only girl in the valley in which her family is homesteading. Her family is of Finnish ancestry as is the rest of the valley, and so everyone is counting on her to grow up “a proper young lady”. But May is more interested in rugged adventures. She’s a lot like Tom Sawyer in many ways. For the first 100 pages I struggled to get into the book, as most of the chapters seemed like self-contained vignettes, and I’d just come off of reading a real page-turner. But like I said, the novel is about May rather than some intricate, overarching narrative. Once I got to the second half of the book however, my reading speed increased and I was really getting into it. The book is funny and poignant, and it’s got a lot of heart. I really appreciated the vivid accounts of frontier life in Washington State at the turn of the century, as well as all the interesting details about Finnish cuisine. This is the part of the book that reminds me of Little House in the Big Woods. It also brings to mind a class I took at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012 called “History of the American Family”. One of the things I learned in that class was how the family unit went from being an arrangement of pragmatic necessity to the emotional institutions we recognize today. Before the creation of the welfare state, families operated as microcosms of the public institutions that were to come. The family was a school, a church, a hospital, a business all at once. As soon as kids were old enough they got to work, which is why so many of these rural families had so many children. That, and the inevitability that some would succumb to disease. These themes are explored in Our Only May Amelia, as the children are delegated many responsibilities by their parents. May herself has to cook for the whole family, and the children regularly work on their neighbors’ farms. All of this knowledge- and I suspect, May’s narrative voice too- was gleaned from the diary of Jennifer Holm’s grandaunt Alice Amelia Holm, who lived in the valley of the Nasel River at the close of the 19th century. Aside from being an enjoyable work of fiction, the book stands a great educational resource for young readers. A lot of what happens in the book is taken from real life events; the strength and quality of Holm’s writing is in its authenticity.

This turned out to be an awesome read for me! I’m committed to reading from a range of authors and genres as part of my new schedule. I already have some more children’s and teenage fiction lined up and I look forward to sharing them with you here.

 

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The Husband’s Secret & The Road Not Taken

The past two weeks I have been reading Liane Moriarty’s novel The Husband’s Secret. It was recommended to me by my roommate Anne-Marie, who read the book last summer and has several of Moriarty’s works on her bookshelf. At the time I was submitting a short story to a competition and pitching my idea to her and Aaron. I was overwhelmed with pride and confidence when Anne-Marie told me “Hey, that sounds pretty good”. I was anxious and uncertain about my idea, but she and her fiancé seemed to like it. Anne-Marie went on to say that my idea reminded her of The Husband’s Secret, and suggested I read the book. I leapt at the chance. Although I don’t reject the old adage of “Write what you know”, I find that it can be misleading and restrictive for young writers trying to find their voice. Instead, I subscribe to the philosophy of “write what you want to learn about” or “write what you want to read”. I had written this story about a mistake, a rush of blood, a split-second decision, and how such a moment might affect someone for the rest of their life. That was the kind of story I was interested in telling, and so that was the kind of story I was interested in reading.

I had just finished James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime and it was a great read- a mesmerizing book. However the rules I have set myself this year are as follows: that whenever I finish a novel, the next one I decide upon has to be different. I’m looking for variety. Salter’s voice is, as I wrote in my review, especially masculine in tone. I needed a female author to read from next. Moriarty was a great choice, because in her novel The Husband’s Secret, you follow the point of view of three women. The chapters alternate (kind of like A Song of Ice and Fire) and you quickly develop a very intimate connection with each woman. Although the novel is categorized as a thriller, the book is a lot more nuanced than that. Yes, the plot is underpinned by a superb mystery that has the addictive quality of “Double-Stuf” Oreos. But that’s not really what the book is about- not in my opinion at least. The novel touches on themes of motherhood, fidelity, marriage, the mundanity of suburban life, and the effects the passing of time has on a person and their relationships. It’s about mothers and wives trying to keep it together. There are no heroes and villains in this book. Moriarty has such a sharp eye for the flawed and conflicted hearts of the everyday person. I kept going back and forth with how I felt about the characters. The conclusion I ultimately came to was what Moriarty is trying to drive home: that there are no simple, clear choices and answers. Everything is infinitely complex. I’m not saying that the book is morally relativist, but rather that it emphasizes the importance of understanding and contextualizing human behavior- especially decision-making.

Another way in which The Husband’s Secret turned out to be the right choice for me following A Sport and a Pastime is that the latter is almost plotless- it is a hazy, kaleidoscopic journey into the male psyche, a beautifully-written, dominatingly-atmospheric account of raw desire- whereas the former is all about pace and suspense. Moriarty is a certified badass in this regard. Her book is more than twice as long as Salter’s, but I read it so much faster. I couldn’t get my mind out of the heads of those three women. I had to know what the hell would happen next. I spent every available opportunity getting in whatever reading I could. I spent a few days volunteering for a solar analysis survey in the ‘burbs of western Houston, and I’d be walking down the street whilst reading this book, almost tripping several times on carelessly placed raccoon turds and fire-ant mounds.

The basic, spoiler free premise is that the story takes place in Sydney, Australia and sees the intertwined narratives of three women: Cecilia- one of those superhuman, crazily-efficient suburban moms that seems to have the ideal middle-class life, Tess- an introvert struggling with social anxiety, and Rachel- an elderly lady grieving a personal tragedy. The “inciting incident”, as they say in film school, arrives in the form of a letter Cecilia discovers in the attic, addressed to her in her husband’s handwriting, but with the warning that it must only be opened in the event of his death. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my obsession with what is known as the “Butterfly Effect”, and I think it’s a big reason why the story and its characters resonated so much with me. All of them, throughout the narrative, obsess over time. Rachel in particular is stuck about twenty years in the past, trapped by it, and spends all her time wondering about what may or may not have happened in an alternate timeline. Tess- my favorite character- constantly dwells on cause and effect, and whether the choices she makes are the right ones. There is a theme of “What would happen if-” and that is what brings me to Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”.

I was introduced to the works of Robert Frost in 2012 in a survey of postbellum American Literature (the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, basically). He is, coincidentally, my sister Anne-Marie’s favorite poet. After she recommended his works to me in the summer of 2014, I returned to them and bought myself a copy of his Collected Poems. The poem “The Road Not Taken” is one of his most famous. I had not planned on writing about it in this post, but I discovered during my initial blueprints for this piece that Moriarty’s novel reminded me of it. Specifically it reminded me of an aspect of the poem that often gets overlooked. For many years people have read the poem as a celebration of individualism, a rejection of conformity, a simplistic and moralistic affirmation that the narrator is not “following the crowd”. According to Frost’s biographer Lawrence Thompson, this is a misinterpretation. The poem is actually a much darker and much more complex examination of the human condition, specifically the tendency of people to “waste energy regretting any choice made”. Frost himself indicated that this was the correct interpretation, saying that the poem is based on his friend Edward Thomas, “a person who, whichever road he went, would be sorry he didn’t go the other”. I am inclined to believe this reading. It speaks to something endemic to the human experience, something we can all relate to; it’s about indecision, regret, and the importance we attach to all our choices, inconsequential or not.

I was reminded of this as I came to the end of The Husband’s Secret. The book’s epilogue in particular has some fascinating revelations. Everything is tied up- this masterfully crafted plot- and finally you see everything in its entirety. Everything is understood. I think you should read it, so I won’t say anything specific. I encourage all of you to step outside your preferred genre and try books like this one. If a book is so excellently written that it touches on the universal elements of society, culture and the human condition, then I believe anyone no matter their personal tastes can and will enjoy it. This book was published in 2013, so Moriarty is definitely an author of our age, a voice of the present day. It proved to be a bestseller and there’s going to be a film adaptation of it starring the (super hot) actress Blake Lively.

 

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This post owes special thanks to my roommate and best friend, who in this blog we call Anne-Marie (she is of French ancestry). If you enjoyed this piece, please consider giving me a Like or Subscribe! Let me know if you want more of the same, or me to write about something new! Also, I would love to hear from any other Moriarty fans out there in the comments! Thank you for reading.

Reading James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime

It’s been said that one of the most satisfying pleasures in life is checking things off a list. I do it all the time when setting myself productivity targets. The one second it takes to draw that horizontal line through a target is enough for me to initiate superhuman productivity mode. This year I’ve been working hard to overcome my deteriorating reading efficiency. I love to read, but 2016 saw an abysmal effort on my part. The purchases of books kept increasing, and yet I was reading less. Part of it is the number of distractions I now have on hand; the purchase of my Playstation 4 in September 2015 signaling a sharp uptake in my interest in gaming, with it transforming from a casual hobby to a bona fide lifestyle. But for the most part my problem was my tendency to get so overwhelmed with multiple goals that I end up achieving none of them because I’m spending all my time worrying about them. I’m awful at multi-tasking. 2017 so far has seen me get better at finishing things. There are so many books I want to read and ideally I want to be reading one a week. I’m still a slow reader, but I’m training myself like a pro athlete.

I’ve been trying to mix up my reading as much as I can. Not only have I been reading from new and different genres, and paying attention to things like “Am I reading too many male authors?” or “Am I reading too many British/American authors?” but I have also been returning to the books that have suffered for years on my bookshelf as well as indulging my new tastes. One such book that has remained on my shelf for a long time, perhaps even predating my university years, is James Salter’s magnum opus A Sport and a Pastime. Salter is what I think of as being a “writer’s writer”. He is revered within the world of writing, even if he is not the most popular author on the market, or his books aren’t cherished by schools alongside teachers’ favorites such as Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird. No, Salter’s voice seems to speak to writers. His sentences are so perceptive. That to me was what impressed me the most about this book. The way he can give a voice to a house or a hotel room or a small French town. His descriptions of France are absolutely mesmerizing. I wish I were half the writer Salter was. He has a keen, intrusive, almost omniscient eye for human behavior, and captures to me a basic truth the way we see one another. What we make them into. That to me is the point of this book.

The basic premise is very simple. In terms of plot there isn’t much; there are no twists to speak of, there is no suspense. It seems so real. It recounts an affair between an American college dropout from Yale and a young French girl. But the whole thing is framed through the voyeuristic imagination of an unreliable narrator, who we come to learn is a photographer and an American expat. What’s important is not “truth” in the journalistic, factual sense. It’s the basic truths of how we perceive one another, and what we mean to one another. Our desire to create heroes out of people. The narrator flat out admits that he is imagining most of the events of the book. What’s important to us is not what actually happens, but what is revealed by the way the narrator perceives the two characters. He is obsessed with both of them, he is sexually frustrated, he is inadequate, emasculated, and jealous. He has a complex relationship to Dean- the Yale dropout- who he seems to simultaneously idolize and outright hate. Dean seems to represent to him everything he is not; the status of alpha male is given to him by the narrator.

This is, I think, a very masculine book. I have read some of Salter’s short fiction as well- a collection called Last Night– and it is quite excellent. The voice in those stories is similarly very masculine, and I think they and A Sport and a Pastime are a fascinating look into the masculine identity- its flaws, its fragility, its pitfalls, and its underlying- too often unexamined- sensitivity. It has the feel of other “manly” books, such as those of Henry Miller, and especially the succinct, terse sentences of Ernest Hemingway. I remember watching a news story on the BBC a few years ago that was discussing the release of Salter’s novel All That Is. Here was this author that few people I encountered seemed to know about, and yet the upcoming release of his novel had all the hype and anticipation of a new Blink 182 album. The news story described his novel as being similar to the TV show Mad Men– featuring flawed men who were hard drinkers and rampant womanizers. Hell, the story I remember most from Last Night features a terminally ill wife being euthanized by her husband, who wastes no time in literally going downstairs (thinking she was dead) and having filthy baboon sex with her large-breasted friend.

A Sport and a Pastime definitely falls into the category of an erotic novel. But I don’t want that to put any of you off. The sex scenes are fleeting, never more than a few lines. If the book can be likened to a prime rib steak, the eroticism is merely the seasoning. It adds a flavor. It’s explicit but it never outstays its welcome. You don’t even get so much as a flash of nipple until you’re about 60 pages in anyway. And I feel like each sex scene is there for a reason, and it’s not to titillate, but to explore the psychological profile of the characters, and it acts as a way to chronicle the relationship of Dean and the French girl. It’s about the narrator’s perception of their affair based on his own repressed sexuality, and his view of the French girl as a kind of embodiment of wild sexuality. He imagines that their relationship is built on sex because he cannot detach his perception of the girl from sex. For the narrator, it’s the information that lies beyond the closed doors of the various hotel rooms the couple frequents that he seeks so badly, that is most precious to him. To me, the narrator is a sympathetic figure, if not a likable one.

It’s a very compelling novel and I am sure most of you will finish it in less than a week. It has some truly beautiful and atmospheric descriptions of France. I hope you will give it a try. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. Happy Summer Reading everyone!

What I’ve Been Reading – Spring 2017

I have been looking forward to penning this entry to my online journal for a while. The intent of this post is to provide a little overview of my reading adventures for the first half of 2017. This blog exists as a manifestation of my commitment to being productive, and everything- my consistent writing output, my sleeping patterns, the attrition to my anxiety, my new work ethic, and my overall increasing levels of happiness- stems from my reading. For me, reading is the way out of the snake-pit of depression. It’s the best starting point, because all you need to do is sit down and do it. And then everything snowballs. The more I read, the more ideas for stories, poems and blog posts I got. Working towards the goal of finishing a book gave me a sense of purpose. I will detail my previous struggles with reading in a later post. But for now, here is a selected overview of my reading journey for the last few months; three books that have helped me in different ways. There are others I have not included because I have either blogged about them already, or I am planning a more in-depth post about them. Enjoy!

 

Starman Jones – Robert A. Heinlein

Publication Date: 1953

Country: American

Genre: Young Adult Science Fiction, Space Opera

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This book is special to me because it signified two things: my return to the genre of science fiction after a long hiatus, and the beginning of my attempts to escape from the snake-pit. At the time I was in a bad way. I couldn’t sleep and part of the problem was the fact I was watching Youtube videos until 4am every night on my smartphone. My roommate Aaron said, “You need to stop watching Shaqtin’ a Fool and start getting some good sleep”. For the first few nights, given that my body clock was already messed up, I decided that I was going to use the time to listen to an audiobook on Youtube. There are tons of them. This one was about 8 hours or so. No problem, right? I could just listen for two hours every night and be done in a few days.

This was very appealing to me because at the time I was a weak reader. I was like a rusty athlete trying to get his stamina back. The quality of the audiobook was excellent. The skill of the one recording the book is such an important factor. It literally makes the difference between me turning off the video after a minute. A good narrator will get you hooked.

This book is set in a futuristic United States that captures the optimism of the 1950s. It’s very much how they imagined the future to be back then- the technology is exciting and efficient and wondrous, and the American character is largely unchanged. Instead, space represents the new frontier to be tamed and explored. I think that is part of what drew me to the novel; it’s quintessentially American spirit. Reading it, one is quickly reminded of Mark Twain. The protagonist is a sympathetic character- a young farm boy with a lousy home and a thirst for adventure- a fascination with discovering the stars. The novel has a picaresque quality to it- we are taken on a wondrous and whimsical voyage through space, encountering all kinds of alien life forms and futuristic technology. There is just something very charming about its clean, golden view of the future, and the fact that the sci-fi elements are for the most part aesthetic. The conflict of the novel is emphatically human. I am sure the story could quite easily be remade in a real world setting. The boy has to suffer a greedy stepfather, a jealous boss, and his own self-doubt. It’s a beautiful coming-of-age novel with a fantastical backdrop, and some very interesting and intricate descriptions of the mechanics of future technology.

I am so pleased to finally experience the genius of Robert A. Heinlein. This guy deserves your attention!

 

Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Publication Date: 1981

Country: Colombian

Genre: Literary Fiction novella, Crime Fiction

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I have been desperate to try some Gabriel Garcia Marquez for a long time. A few years ago I enjoyed reading several books from the Latin American scene- a book of strange philosophical short stories by Jorge Luis Borges called the Book of Sand, and a highly experimental novel by Julio Cortazar called Hopscotch. Both of them are Argentine. I enjoyed their work; even if I didn’t entirely understand it, there was just something mesmerizing, intriguing, poetic and mysterious about the way they wrote. They left a distinct impression on me, and though I often try to write in an experimental style, I don’t think I would ever have the balls to try and emulate their work. The very idea is frightening. Instead I just admire it as an outsider.

My desperation to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez was intensified when he passed away in April 2014, and one of my favorite all time Chelsea players- back-to-back player of the year Juan Mata- sent out a poignant tribute to the literary giant on twitter.

I got my chance to read a novella of his just a few months ago. Even though the end is given away in the title, I found it utterly compelling. It’s fictional, but reading it was like watching a documentary of a tragedy you know is coming, and yet despite its already having happened, you grow nervous and wish your truth is incorrect, that the film might provide a happy ending and rewrite history. It reminded me of when I watched the HBO series Rome, and I knew that Caesar was gonna get shanked, but I hoped against hope that he would survive and history would be rewritten. And then, when the violence occurs, it is so graphic and ghastly it leaves you literally nauseous. Another good example is the recent Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. Marquez’s novella had me squirming at the end. I was sad. The book is short but it is so powerful. It really captures the atmosphere of small town Colombia, and the descriptions are some of the most beautiful and perceptive passages of writing I have ever read. The modest, tropical town is infused with these raw, larger than life themes of chastity, suppressed desire, femininity, the nature of machismo, and ultimately the collective responsibility and complicity of the town in the butchery that occurs. The style is very straightforward and somewhat journalistic. Everything about this book is intriguing. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Cabal – Clive Barker

Publication Date: 1988

Country: British

Genre: Horror

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This was an attempt on my part to try something new! Prior to reading this, I had never delved into Horror Fiction before. I’ve got a copy of Misery by Stephen King on my bookshelf but I still haven’t read it yet. I became intrigued by Barker’s style and decided to give this a go. In short, it’s about a guy in Calgary (Alberta, Canada) whose mental health issues and reliance on medication leaves holes in his memories. He starts to suspect he might be a serial killer, and decides to stop himself from hurting anyone else by seeking out a mythical commune in the Canadian wilderness that is a place for monsters, murderers and bloodsuckers to live in acceptance of their true nature.

I won’t spoil anything, so I shall leave it at that. But this book is definitely a page-turner. It’s a straight up thriller, complete with twists, suspense, horrific violence, and graphic sex. But I don’t want to make the book sound cheap. It is expertly written, and the kind of suspense that Barker creates (and which authors like Stephen King are celebrated for) is an aspect of creative writing I am extremely envious of. I hate that thrillers might be admonished as “popular fiction” by the snobs of the literary scene, for supposedly focusing on plot as opposed to character development. Everything is not so black and white. The two protagonists Boone and Lori are fascinating characters with memorable journeys and inward struggles. I just find the whole craft of engineering a reader’s sense of fear and panic so amazing, and I truly envy the writers that can pull it off, using their pens to manipulate the emotions of their readers.

Although the book is categorized as a horror, it made me think more of a dark fantasy, a thriller with Gothic elements. Back in the day I dabbled in the works of Gothic fiction, enamored for a brief time with the prose of Ann Radcliffe and John William Polidori. I feel like this book played with those motifs, appropriating mausoleums, graveyards, catacombs and fiends of the night. You should definitely try some Clive Barker if you are looking for a grim and dark page-turner that is at the same time nuanced and wildly imaginative.