Wednesday, June 30, 2010

West Baden Springs Hotel, 1 : Writers, 0.

Book Reviewed: So Cold the River, by Michael Koryta

I rarely get to read books set in places I've actually been. Sure, there's books with scenes in Paris's Latin Quarter or set in South Carolina or whatever. But I'm talking about books that take place in actual rooms where I've stood. And I very rarely get to read books about places that I've not only been to, but that I actually love. Which is why I went out and ordered the hardcover copy of Michael Koryta's new book as soon as I heard about it last week.

So Cold the River takes place at one of the most amazing sites I've ever stepped foot inside: the West Baden Springs Hotel in southern Indiana. During a visit to the infamous resort town of French Lick, Indiana, a couple years ago, my family went on a tour of the historical West Baden hotel. At that time, the hotel had just come under new ownership and was beginning to be restored to its former glory. Before that, it had sat for decades as basically very pretty ruins. From the very first glimpse I had of the hotel, my breath was completely taken away. I can honestly say that the West Baden blew my mind. It's such an incredible place, full of history and wonder. Its most famous feature, its massive atrium dome, was a groundbreaking architectural phenom at the time it was built. That dome is so big I could barely comprehend it when I saw it. Seriously, I can't describe how awesome that place is. Here's the website for the newly restored (and now very expensive) resort. Please look at the pictures. I think you'll agree it's something.

Anyway, despite all its grandeur, there's something kind of creepy about a place that big sitting so empty for so many years. Not to mention how strange that whole part of Indiana is, with its rolling hills and its underground river. So it's no surprise that Koryta, who lives in Bloomington and apparently grew up near French Lick and West Baden, chose to make his book about the hotel and its surrounding area a supernatural thriller. Unfortunately, it wasn't that scary. Or thrilling for that matter.

The book centers around Eric Shaw, a filmmaker without much of a film career. He's resorted to making movies about people's lives to be shown at funerals and weddings. After one funeral, he gets chosen by a woman named Alyssa Bradford to make a movie about her dying father-in-law, a mysterious businessman who abandoned his hometown of West Baden, Indiana. Shaw stays at the famous hotel and attempts to make his film, but he ends up just getting haunted instead. He encounteres ghosts and mysteries and some really terrible people. We meet a variety of characters who try to help him find the truth as he begins to get a little too into the history of West Baden as a producer of "healing waters" over the last century.

The problem with the book is that it's kind of boring. It reminded me of a case-heavy episode of my favorite guilty pleasure, the TV show Supernatural. I don't mean that as a compliment. The book just doesn't have much spark to it. Koryta writes wonderfully about that part of Indiana, and he uses French Lick and West Baden to terrific affect. As I read the novel, I couldn't help but wish he had written either a straight mystery or a piece of literary fiction centering on an unfairly misunderstood place. Unfortunately, he wrote an uninteresting ghost story instead. Oh well. At least I got some major kicks out of reading a book about one of my favorite places in the world.

But seriously you guys: This book might not have been that great. But West Baden Springs Hotel? That place kicks ass.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Congrats, Dana and Matthew!

Hey everyone! I just wanted to post a quick note letting you know I won't be posting anything for the next four or five days. So there won't be a new Poem of the Week on Sunday or any new reviews. I'll be out of state, but I have a pile of some very exciting books coming with me, so expect an onslaught of reviews later next week.

I'll be going to Alabama for the wedding of one of this blog's most loyal followers. I know it's going to be an awesome time. So enjoy your weekend, everyone, and congratulations to Dana and Matthew!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Rare Thing in Poetry

Book Reviewed: Alcools: Poems 1898-1913, by Guillame Apollinaire (Translated by Frances Steegmuller)

Obviously, I love poetry. But reading poetry is very different from reading fiction. When I start a novel or a collection of short stories, I can't stop myself from going forward. I plow through the book until the very end. I find that nearly impossible to do with books of poetry. I tend to take them slow, reading a couple poems per day. It often takes me a month or more to read a book of poetry. But every once in a while, I find a collection that becomes compulsive reading. I start and I can't stop until every page has been obliterated.

The quasi-symbolist French poet Guillaume Apollinaire never fails to give me that experience. When I bought his long book of poems related to his World War I experience, Calligrammes, in Chicago a couple years ago, I moved through it so fast that I was half-done by the time my train arrived in South Bend two hours later. I loved Calligrammes; it's definitely one of my favorite single-volume poetry books. So when I had access to the book that came before it, Alcools: Poems 1989-1913, I had to get it.

I wasn't disappointed. I didn't enjoy Alcools as much as Calligrammes, but I still found it super readable. Obviously, part of this is due to the translator, who is surprisingly good at attempting to follow Apollinaire's rhyme schemes and patterns of speech. Apollinaire is famous for being a very symbol-heavy poet, but unlike a lot of poets who do the same, he never gets bogged down in the strange images and weird line shifts. Instead, he manages to keep the humanity and language intact while still coming up with surprising details and language. He's got a lot to teach me as a poet.

The poems I enjoyed the most in this collection included his most famous poem, "Mirabeau Bridge," as well as "Song of the Poorly Loved," "The Farewell," "The Voyager," and "Sick Autumn." But without a doubt, my favorite poem in this collection is the long and weird "House of the Dead." In a World Poetry class a few years back, a professor spent half a class hour on Halloween reading us this poem in its entirety. Its images of the dead returning to hang out with the living are bizarre but also very beautiful. The dead and living mingle, fall in love. And then Apollinaire sticks in a killer of a last line (which I'm not going to give away here). It's just one of those poems that haunts me. Before I read it this week, it had been three years since I'd first heard it that day in class. But I still knew the stanzas with the dead boy proposing to the live girl, and I definitely had the ending memorized. And that's why I love and continue to read poetry. For experiences like that.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Erich Maria Remarque!

Today is the 112th birthday of one of my favorite fiction writers, Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque is famous for writing All Quiet on the Western Front, but his later works are just as tragically beautiful. I became a die-hard Remarque fan in high school, and All Quiet on the Western Front and its "sequel," The Road Back, are two of the most influential books I've ever read. There's only been a handful of writers who I can honestly claim have changed my life, and Remarque is one of them, introducing me to anti-war literature just as the Iraq War was starting. He's long been under-appreciated as a novelist, but he'll always have my vote as one of the best.

If you're interested in learning more about Remarque, his story is really quite fascinating. He survived World War I as a German soldier, took on the Nazis, and spent most of his life in exile from his home country.

Side Note: When F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Hollywood screenwriter at the end of his life, he only received screen credit for one movie: a film adaptation of Remarque's novel Three Comrades. I love this random connection between two of my favorite writers!

Monday, June 21, 2010

There's a Reason Some Books Are Considered Classics

Book Reviewed: Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Sometimes, it's hard to understand how a book achieves its status as a literary "classic." I've read a handful of classics that I absolutely hate. I've also read minor works and loved them. What makes a book classic has very little to do with its emotional content or popularity. Rather, it's about a book being resonant with its time. T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are made amazing by their artistic reaction to the emerging modern world after war; Dostoevsky's broken moral societies are views into the chaos to come in Russia. Some books are classics because they're just plain good. But most are classics because of what they do within context.

Kurt Vonnegut's famous war novel Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books. It's such a bizarre little novel. It's about war and aliens and time travel and life and death. Trying to describe it to someone is nearly impossible. It starts out in Vonnegut's own voice, then transfers its attentions to Billy Pilgrim, an awkward man who survived being a prisoner of war in World War II Germany and the bombing of Dresden. Billy becomes a successful optometrist who eventually reveals to everyone that he has been abducted by aliens and is simply living his life in little time lapses. He can go forward and backward in time, always by accident. The aliens who have abducted him, the Tralfamadorians, can see all of time at once, a fact that Billy (and seemingly, Vonnegut himself) finds beautiful and preferable to our own world. See why it's hard to describe this book to people?

I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as an awkward high school student. Vonnegut was the favorite writer of my beloved high school writing teacher, so I felt it was necessary I read his most famous work. I wasn't disappointed. I remember really liking the book back then. As a teenager, I was obsessed with war as a literary subject. I loved anti-war novels like crazy. Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the most famous American war novels of all time. It's treatment of war as a bizarre venture and its depiction of Dresden as something so harrowing that it can barely be mentioned is made all the much more poignant by the protagonist's time-travelling. When the book finally hits its final pages, we really get to see the devastation involved in the total destruction of Dresden in World War II. Vonnegut's writing makes Billy's avoidance about talking about the war seems so much more tragic in those final pages. And the book is even more powerful when you consider that it was written just as the Vietnam War was becoming unbearable.

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that absolutely deserves its status as a classic. The writing is plain but powerful, able to be funny and depressing at the same time. Also, for those of you who don't know, the novel is responsible for one of the most famous lines in all of American literature: "So it goes." When Vonnegut died a few years back, that line was all over the place. It's the Tralfamadorian response to death, and it is used so often in the book that it manages to become simultaneously silly and tragic.

This is one of those books that always makes me shake my head and say, "Wow." I really don't know how Vonnegut's mind managed to create something so strangely poetic. Seeing a belated response to devastation in the context of current disaster is what makes this book a classic. It's not necessarily one of my most favorite books, but it is one of the maybe ten or twenty books I think everyone in America should read in his or her lifetime.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Youth," by James Wright

In honor of Father's Day, here is a poem from one of my favorite poets, James Wright. Wright's poems are always deceptively simple, hiding a complexity of emotion under the guise of plain existence. Enjoy!

Youth, by James Wright

Strange bird,
His song remains secret.
He worked too hard to read books.
He never heard how Sherwood Anderson
Got out of it, and fled to Chicago, furious to free himself
From his hatred of factories.
My father toiled fifty years
At Hazel-Atlas Glass,
Caught among girders that smash the kneecaps
Of dumb honyaks.
Did he shudder with hatred in the cold shadow of grease?
Maybe. But my brother and I do know
He came home as quiet as the evening.

He will be getting dark, soon,
And loom through new snow.
I know his ghost will drift home
To the Ohio River, and sit down, alone,
Whittling a root.
He will say nothing.
The waters flow past, older, younger
Than he is, or I am.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I'm On a Roll...

Book Reviewed: Murder Mysteries, by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell (Graphic Novel)

Third book reviewed this week! Since these last three books have all been under 300 pages, I've been going through them lately like nobody's business. It's all due to working at the library now, I think. Having such close access to so many good books turns me into a monster.

As you all know by now, "Murder Mysteries" is not only my favorite Neil Gaiman story, it's also one of my favorite short stories in general. So when I heard there was a graphic novel version, I had to seek it out. Luckily, it lived up to its origins.

The story itself is so good that there really didn't need to be a lot done to it for me to like this book. A story within a story, "Murder Mysteries" tells the tale of the first murder in heaven, pre-Earth. It's a cool little piece that plays a bit like a noir, but which has a resonance in the story's framing in the modern world. P. Craig Russell's artwork really does the story justice, with its attention to detail and body language. He did a great job using page and scene cuts to heighten the tension between the frame story and the inner tale. Overall, I was quite impressed.

It's a short review, since I've talked about my love of this story before, but just know that if you haven't read "Murder Mysteries" before, this graphic adaptation is a great place to start.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Anne Carson Might Be Too Smart for Me

Book reviewed: The Beauty of the Husband, by Anne Carson

According to its cover, Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband is "a fictional essay in 29 tangos." A series of poems about the marriage and divorce between the female speaker and her adulterous husband, the book is as complicated as any of Carson's other works. Using Keat's philosophy of "beauty as truth," Carson creates a picture of a failed relationship with snapshots ("tangos") of moments and emotion. The whole thing is kind of like a puzzle largely open to interpretation, playing with emotions but forcing the reader to come to her own moral judgments. Luckily, I've read a lot of Anne Carson before I read this book. Otherwise, I might have been pretty lost.

As you might remember from past Carson reviews I've posted here, I'm a huge fan of the way she uses verse to blend literary tradition into the contemporary world. Her book Autobiography of Red is a modern retelling of a Greek myth, and it works wonderfully. Unfortunately, I found that The Beauty of the Husband lacked the pathos and attention to image that defined Red. Instead, we get a lot of language and memory and leftover feelings. The rawness of love and betrayal were missing for me.

I liked the book well enough. Occasionally, a moment or line really wowed me, particularly in the moments shared between the speaker and her unfaithful ex's best friend, Ray. I felt like Carson had all the tools and did exactly what she set out to do. But for me, the emotional satisfaction I hope to find in good poetry just wasn't totally there. And because Carson has the tendency to be a tad too intellectual at times, the language wasn't graceful or arresting enough to make up for that.

Anyway, it's a decent book of poetry that I definitely didn't regret reading. I just plain didn't like it as much as some of Carson's other work. I like what she does. But sometimes, I think she might be a little too smart for me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #7

Trashy Read #7: Flat-Out Sexy, by Erin McCarthy

Race car drivers have never really done anything for me. Until now. Let's just say that Erin McCarthy's contemporary romance, Flat-Out Sexy, lived up to its name.

The book is quite simple and doesn't really have much of an external plot. Tamara Briggs, the widow of a dead stock car racer and a single mom, meets the hot and younger driver Elec Monroe, and they have a steamy night together before a race. However, they both soon fall in love with each other and get over a couple of personal issues to find love together. That's it.

Although her writing wasn't anything special, McCarthy shows a flair for creating inviting characters. Tamara and Elec are genuinely good people who are extremely mature in comparison to most characters in the romance genre, who tend to be overly defensive and jealous. As problems arise, Tamara and Elec deal with them like two kind-hearted adults, which is exactly what they are. They're sweet together, and McCarthy inserts Tamara's two kids into the mix without shifting the focus too much. This is one of the few romance novels I've ever encountered where I really just enjoyed seeing the characters as a couple, hanging out and attempting to understand one another. The whole relationship was handled very well.

But my real reason for liking this book is much more shallow. Quite frankly, Elec Monroe is one of the hottest romance heroes I've encountered in a long time. I might like most romance heroes I encounter (since I'm such a picky reader), but I actually had an out-and-out crush on Elec. First off, he's super good-looking, and McCarthy gives him warm brown eyes instead of the boring blue orbs most romance writers saddle men with. But under all that, he's also just super-sweet and quiet and careful. He doesn't take overly big risks, and he hates the spotlight. With Tamara and her kids, he's gentle and never pushy. Overall, he's the kind of awesomely great guy you see so rarely in real life. Hell, even his name is hot!

Anyway, overall, I'd totally recommend this one to anyone who likes contemporary romance or racing. I was impressed.

Note: There's a "sequel" about two of this book's minor characters titled Hard and Fast. I gave up after about 50 pages. It seemed like it'd be an okay book, I just wasn't feeling it the way I did with this one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Asked for a Happy Memory of Her Father, She Recalls Wrigley Field

Summer is baseball season. I'm not much of a baseball fan (it's boring to watch on TV, the season is overcrowded, and I think the players are ridiculously overpaid), but it always makes me nostalgic. I went to my share of baseball games as a kid, and I still love the history and folklore of this American pasttime. That's why I like this poem by Beth Ann Fennelly. It captures the nostalgia that goes hand in hand with baseball games. It's not so much about the game itself; it's about your own private memories in the stands. Plus, this poem seems appropriate for next weekend's Father's Day, full of all the complicated emotions between a parent and child in one's memory. Enjoy!

Asked for a Happy Memory of Her Father, She Recalls Wrigley Field, by Beth Ann Fennelly

His drinking was different in sunshine,
as if it couldn't be bad. Sudden, manic,
he swung into a laugh, bought me
two ice creams, said One for each hand.

Half the hot inning I licked Good Humor
running down wrists. My bird-mother
earlier, packing my pockets with sun block,
has hopped her warning: Be careful.

So, pinned between his knees, I held
his Old Style in both hands
while he streaked the lotion on my cheeks
and slurred My little Indian princess.

Home run: the hairy necks of men in front
jumped up, thighs torn from gummy green bleachers
to join the violent scramble. Father
held me close and said Be careful,

be careful. But why should I be full of care
with his thick arm circling my shoulders,
with a high smiling sun, like a home run,
in the upper right-hand corner of the sky?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen, I Present the First Book to Make Me Cry in 2010

Yep, it happened. I finally read a book this year that made me cry like a baby. I dropped a couple tears over American Gods and Joe Hill's short story "Pop Art" earlier this year. But this one brought on all the sniffling hysterics I reserve for my favorite emotional reads. The book? Markus Zusak's "young adult" novel The Book Thief.

I have yet to personally meet a single person who's read The Book Thief and didn't love it. It's one of those word of mouth books that picks up steam with time. The book debuted way back in 2006, but recently, it's been topping bestseller lists and winning hearts all over the world. Surprisingly, I've read a handful of scathing reviews dating back to the book's release. But those reviews don't matter. Because this book is amazing.

For the last few months, one of my most reader-ly friends has been after me to read Zusak's novel. "But it's about Nazi Germany," I said. "I don't like books about that time period." Luckily, she kept after me, claiming it would be right up my alley. I resisted for a long time, but when I saw a copy of the book at the library I work at, I relented. Okay, I'll give it a shot, I thought.

I loved it. Loved loved loved it. It's a weird book - thick and full of characters and narrated by Death itself. It's hard to make a summary of the plot, but I'll try: Young Liesel Meminger is sent to Molching (a small town on the outskirts of Munich) as a foster child after her mother decides she can no longer care for her due to the political climate and lack of money. On the trip there, Liesel's little brother dies. At that moment, our narrator Death meets Liesel for the first time, and he's captivated by her. Liesel's foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann, and they end up being great parents. Rosa is prickly and verbally abusive, but she loves her foster daughter. And Hans is this book's Atticus Finch - an honorable person of the highest order. He saves Liesel from her nightmares and her illiteracy, and he is a truly wonderful human being. Eventually, the Hubermann's hide a Jewish man named Maxi n their basement, and he becomes friends with adolescent Liesel. In the meantime, Liesel gains a best friend in the sweet and lovelorn Rudy Steiner, who eventually shows the same kind of honor and belief in humanity that marks Hans Hubermann. Of course, World War Two happens during all this, and the war and Nazi Party completely obliterate this little world in Molching.

Zusak handles all the chaos of the time period and the world he's created very well. Death makes a great narrator, with little asides and notes that deepen the book's themes and complicate the actual storytelling. Death doesn't have the desires for mystery and plotting that humans have, so he often gives things away early and often. But if anything, this just made me love the way the story was told that much more. Death's thoughts can be surprisingly poignant at times.

The characters are what make this book, at least for me. Liesel is a great protagonist, capable of all emotion. She can be mean at one moment, completely selfless the next. Her stepfather, Hans, is an enviable (if somewhat cliched) father figure. Rudy is the perfect best friend, backing up Liesel when she needs it and secretly pining for her all the while. Then, of course, there's Max, who is as complex as any actual person you could meet. And Zusak then has the guts to fill the book with a myriad of secondary characters as well, enriching the book's world.

So where does the title come from, you might wonder. Well, that's simple. Liesel is the book thief, a stealer of words. When her biological little brother is buried, she finds and takes a copy of The Gravedigger's Handbook. Once Hans Hubermann teaches her to read using that book, she becomes obsessed with words. Throughout the book, she steals and acquires several books, all of which are her greatest treasures. At the end of the book, words literally save her life, as she writes her life story in a basement during a bombing. Yet, through the entire book, Liesel and Death and Max reflect on the dual power of words. Words led to the rise of Hitler and Nazi atrocities. But they also provide comfort and security not found anywhere else. By the end of the book, we're meant to understand that humanity is the same: capable of good and bad in equal measure.

In a lot of ways, I can see why some critics found the book a little over-padded and heavy-handed. But I'm willing to ignore all that. Because this book had moments and sentences so gutwrenching I actually felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. Unfortunately, I can't say much about my favorite passages without giving the book's power away, but let's just say that this book rocked my world for the five days I read it. While reading the book, I grew particularly fond of Rudy Steiner, a BFF for the ages, so any of Death's observations of his character were particularly moving for me.

Anyway, this book made me cry outright by the end. It's beautiful and haunting and breaks your heart over and over again. But it's also a fantastic picture of human beings in all their complicated, terrible, hopeful ways. This is, without a doubt, bound to be one of my favorite books I'll read this year.

Book Reviewed: The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Monday, June 7, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #6

Trashy Read #6: Wicked Becomes You, by Meredith Duran

Welcome back to Trashy Reads! It's been a whole month since I finished a trashy romance novel, and I've been developing quite the "To-Read" stack during that time. One of the top books on that list was Meredith Duran's Wicked Becomes You, which got good reviews on the romance websites I follow.

I wasn't disappointed. This historical romance was great fun. Even better, it takes place during the Victorian era, instead of the usual Regency period that romance novels tend to visit. I think I might become hooked on these Victorian books, though. The time period is more interesting to me than Regency because of the rise of the industrial middle class. In fact, the heroine of this book, Gwen Maudsley, comes from a family that made their own money decades earlier. She's used to facing the snobbery of the aristocratic classes in Britain. This aspect of Gwen's family history made her a much more intriguing character, in my opinion.

Anyway, the story is simple: Gwen is an orphan whose older brother died a few years earlier in a tavern scuffle. Her brother's best friend, Alex Ramsay, feels it's his fault his friend died. Blah blah blah. Gwen gets left by not one, but TWO, men at the altar and decides to start living life by her own rules. She basically attaches herself to Alex as her guide, they travel around France, fall in love, et cetera.

What makes this book likeable is the time period, as I mentioned before, and Alex. Unlike most historical romance heroes, he's not domineering or over the top. He's just a guy who wants to live his life. His relationship with Gwen begins as a friendship that turns into something more. He's the kind of guy I occasionally harbor crushes on - independent and easy-going, a good guy that has fun (but not too much). I couldn't help but like him.

The writing is good, if not anything to get particularly excited about. Duran is obviously smart and does her research (she's a doctoral student in anthropology), which made the book a breeze to read. I'd definitely read her again. Although one of the plot elements (a land sale between Alex's brother and some jerk) sort of ends up a dud, I found the story itself to be enjoyable and easy to follow. Overall, a very pleasant reading experience.

Coming Up: I have a pile of historicals to read, but I've been neglecting my first love, contemporary romances. So you'll probably see more contemporary books during June.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Prodigy," by Charles Simic

I'm currently reading Markus Zusak's young adult novel, The Book Thief, which is about childhood and growing up and books and Nazi Germany and World War Two, among other things. I'm only about a quarter of the way through, but I already like it a lot. Anyway, the book reminds me of a Charles Simic poem I read a few years ago. It's a poem about growing up in the middle of a war, and I've always liked how Simic refuses to allow the poem to come together as a whole. It's as broken and stumbling as the childhood it speaks about. I've always admired poems that take a form matching their subject. The first time I read this poem, I loved it, and I hope you all do too.

Side note: Last year, I was lucky enough to see Charles Simic do a reading in Indianapolis. He was very entertaining, and I highly recommend hearing him if you get a chance. Sadly, he didn't read this poem.

Prodigy, by Charles Simic

I grew up bent over
a chessboard.

I loved the word endgame.

All my cousins looked worried.

It was a small house
near a Roman graveyard.
Planes and tanks
shook its windowpanes.

A retired professor of astronomy
taught me how to play.

That must have been in 1944.

In the set we were using,
the paint had almost chipped off
the black pieces.

The white King was missing
and had to be substituted for.

I'm told but do not believe
that that summer I witnessed
men hung from telephone poles.

I remember my mother
blindfolding me a lot.
She had a way of tucking my head
suddenly under her overcoat.

In chess, too, the professor told me,
the masters play blindfolded,
the great ones on several boards
at the same time.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Is This Guy the Next Marilynne Robinson?

Answer: I'm not convinced quite yet.

When Paul Harding won this year's Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, Tinkers, it caused something of a stir in the literary world. The book had been published by a tiny medical press; it lacked reviews from nearly all the major literary outlets. I myself had never heard of the book before it won the award. But then when it managed to snag itself a place on the bestsellers' list and in the history books. My interest was only a tad bit piqued, but then I saw the cover. There was Marilynne Robinson, quoted as calling the book "truly remarkable." Well, if Robinson tells me to read something, read it I must!

For the first 1/3rd of the book, I found myself pretty disappointed. Harding's book, so praised for its pretty prose and blended time/space narrative, seemed pretty damn boring to me. But then the book suddenly kicked into gear after about 80 pages, and I became hooked. You see, I'm a sucker for father-son stories, and this one's a doozy. The book's primary character, George, is dying as an old man. As he hallucinates on his deathbed, we see flashes of his childhood and his father, the dreamy and epileptic Howard. George may have been the protagonist (well, kind of - Howard gets almost as much space here), but his father was the real heart of the novel for me. You can't help but feel bad for Howard, but a decision he makes when George and his siblings are still young rocks everyone's world to the core.

This book reminded me a lot of Robinson's own Gilead. Like that book (also a Pulitzer Prize winner), it's about fathers and sons, life and love and grief. It's prose is beautiful and rooted in nature. [Side note: Apparently, Harding was Robinson's student in the Univ. of Iowa's MFA program, the lucky bastard.] But for some reason, I found it a little wanting. Maybe I still can't get over how bored I was by the first few-dozen pages, but I think Harding might have to write a couple more novels before he gets to Robinson heights of excellence. Also, while the blending of narrative over time and place was used to strong effect, it seemed a little messy at times. And all those clock metaphors? A tad too on-the-nose for me.

But I don't mean to poop all over this good book. What Harding does in the last two sections of the book are really quite wonderful. At one point, we get to see Howard remember his own father, a minister who lost his mind too early. This may have been my favorite part of the whole book. Harding's writing is particularly strong in this section, and seeing these three men - fathers and sons all - grow close and recede in each other's lives is nothing short of awesome. Finally, Harding earns my respect by creating two final paragraphs that couldn't have ended the novel better.

I don't know if this book is as great as some critics say it is, but I do think Harding is extremely talented and should do some incredible things in the future. And if a poetic little book like this gets this kind of media attention (and it's been getting a lot), then I can't complain.

Book Reviewed: Tinkers, by Paul Harding