Thursday, September 30, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #13

Trashy Read #13: Harper's Bride, by Alexis Harrington

I know, I know. Two trashy reads in a week? What can I say? I've been on a rampage. Unfortunately, this one just wasn't that good. I'm not sure why I finished it, even. All I know is that I just kept reading and eventually the book was over.

The plot is super-simple. An abusive alcoholic trades his wife, Melissa, and their infant daughter, Jenny, to a trader/storekeeper in exchange for a debt. The trader, rugged and handsome Dylan Harper, takes this trade because he feels bad for Melissa and her terrible life. They live together, trying to stay out of each other's lives as much as possible, and eventually fall in love. The end. There's some complications in the forms of a sick baby, their semi-tragic backgrounds, and Dylan's past romantic hurts. But in the end, they come together as a likeable, tough couple hoping to have a family so unlike the ones they grew up with.

The one thing I liked about this story was the development of Melissa's trust in Dylan. Formerly abused and mistreated by both her father and her husband, she has a hard time trusting another man, particularly one as rough-seeming as Dylan. Eventually, she stops flinching every time he's around and figures out he isn't going to hurt her. Harrington handles this transition quite well. She doesn't suddenly trust him overnight; it takes time and patience from both parties. Also, I really liked Dylan's best friend in the story, Rafe. There wasn't a whole lot of depth to him as a character, but I liked him nonetheless and wished he'd had a better deal in the end (and maybe a book of his own).

So why didn't I like this one very much? Well, the writing was simple and completely without a real sense of style from Harrington. It's not bad writing; it just isn't distinguished or interesting in any way. Also, there might have been some comma misuse. And the setting - Yukon during the late 19th-century gold rush - was clever but not as big a presence as I would have liked. The characters were likeable but a little boring and too good to be true. Sorry. I like a little danger or originality in my romances. And this one just wasn't bringing it.

Next in Trashy Reads: Laura Kinsale's Seize the Fire. I'm super excited about this one, guys!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another S.E. Hinton Book

Book Reviewed: Rumble Fish, by S.E. Hinton

Technically, I've read Rumble Fish before. However, that was ten years ago. I didn't remember a single thing about the book except, strangely enough, a scene where the older brother pours wine over his younger brother's wounds. I have no idea why that scene sticks with me, but I find I can rarely help what memories I carry from books.

After re-reading Tex for the bajillionth time earlier this year, I knew I'd eventually get around to reading this one again. It just took me a while to get there. Rumble Fish is Hinton's shortest book (out of a career of short books, mind you), so it only took me just over an hour to finish. It's not my favorite Hinton book by a long shot, but it had enough of her trademark moves to keep me happy and occupied the entire time.

I think Rumble Fish might be Hinton's least hopeful book. All of her books have really bittersweet endings, where things are left as complicated and imperfect as they began, just in a different way. But his one is particularly painful, as it can't even get up to the "sweet" part of bittersweet. The plot is simple and old hat for Hinton. Our narrator, young Rusty-James is tough as hell, a little criminal in the making. He looks up to his mysterious and legendary older brother, Motorcycle Boy (real name never revealed), who comes in and out of Rusty-James's life and never shows any real affection to him. Rusty-James gets in a fight at the beginning of the book, and the Motorcycle Boy shows up just in time to help him out and take him home. Later, Motorcycle Boy saves Rusty-James and Rusty-James's nerdy friend Steve, but only after dropping an information bomb on his little brother's head earlier in the evening. It's not the kind of loving but troubled sibling relationship we see in The Outsiders or Tex; it's much more destructive and dark.

In the books final pages, something happens that changes Rusty-James's life, but not necessarily for the better. Hinton really ratchets up the violence in the final third of her books, but this one seems particularly devastating because it doesn't lead to any kind of foreseeable good. Unlike the shooting in Tex that heals the wounds between the two brothers or the violence-is-bad lesson of Outsiders, we don't get a chance to see any real impact on Rusty-James. The book's frame, which takes place in the future, shows that his life must be somewhat better. But there doesn't seem to be much in lessons learned here. It's all just very sad.

This book would be a kind of exercise in the miserable if it weren't for Hinton's most laudable talent: her narrators. She pins complex stories on very specific viewpoints, a viewpoint that often lacks perspective and class. Her narrators are often out of the loop when it comes to other characters' emotions and motives, and that's what makes her books so good. Having these kind of unreliable narrators really works to the advantage of the story she's trying to tell. These are stories about wayward kids learning there's a world outside of themselves, and this broken, self-absorbed narration works perfectly to this kind of lesson. I don't know how she does it. Rusty-James is a little stupid, totally unaware of his surroundings, and even more unaware of himself. Yet, it's easy for the reader to sympathize with him completely. Hinton knows how to make the unlikeable likeable.

The character of Motorcycle Boy is also an interesting creation. He's unlike any of Hinton's other violent, charismatic young men. You might compare him to Dally from The Outsiders or Mark from That Was Then, This Is Now, but he never emerges as a sympathetic figure like those two (though admittedly, Mark is really hard to love by the end of his book). However, he's still fascinating. He's such a bizarre and utterly alone human being, and nothing can really change him. Making him partially deaf and colorblind is a smart move on Hinton's part, because the character is himself so unable to live in a world with any kind of sensual complexity or regard for others. He's part of a world that isn't ours, but he's largely to blame for his own problems. We occasionally see a nice moment from him - when he saves Rusty-James from a fight or when he tells Rusty-James about an important and formative event from their childhood, for example. But he's never quite good enough, and therefore it's no surprise what happens to him in the end. He's smart and obviously has a complex inner life, but he also fails to make connections. In Hinton's world, this is where he goes wrong. It's her characters who make connections with other people that eventually become heroic, and Motorcycle Boy never does that. Learning to love and live with other people is what leads the soul's salvation in her books, and it's what makes this book particularly hard to read, since that never quite happens.

So all in all, a decent read. It's not my favorite Hinton book, but then again, it's hard to beat Tex. In fact, this book made me want to go back and reread Tex again. God, that's a great book.

Monday, September 27, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #12

Trashy Read #12: The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale

Laura Kinsale hangs like a heavy shadow over the landscape of romance writing. She's considered one of the best, and her work is constantly held up as a prime example of darker-toned, long, intricate historical romance. The Shadow and the Star is particularly famous. So I finally caved in and bought a copy of the book to see for myself.

And wow. I can see why Kinsale is so legendary. In the words of internet users everywhere, this book was EPIC. Unfortunately, in describing the plot to you, I expect snickers everywhere. Because, you see, the hero is a trained ninja. Mind you, he's a white dude from Hawaii. Also, this takes place during the Victorian era. Yeah. Luckily, it's not as ridiculous as it sounds. In fact, it all goes over very, very well due to its originality.

I've never read a historical romance like this, although I guess this kind of long, complex plot was once very popular in the genre. This book is so different from anything else I've ever read that I wasn't quite sure what to make of it at first. First of all, it has a heroine you don't see a lot in historicals. Sure, Leda has that annoying pureness and kindness that so many have, but she's also impoverished and from a completely unremarkable background. Secondly, part of the book takes place in Victorian-era Hawaii, which is new to me. Finally, there's the hero, who might be one of the more complicated figures I've ever seen in a romance.

The hero, Samuel Gerard, is rich and super-handsome and complicated, as per usual. But he has a really sad past that includes being used as a sex slave when he was a small child, a plot point that Kinsale handles briefly and gracefully. He was eventually saved by a wealthy noble family from Hawaii, and under the guidance of their butler, Dojun, he became trained in the arts of a ninja. Samuel is pretty legendary in the romance world, for obvious reasons. This isn't your usual historical romance nobleman. But he's not always likeable or even right, which surprised me. Kinsale really knows how to put together a complicated figure that's eerily lifelike: occasionally goodhearted, occasionally a jerk (even creepy), and often playing his cards too close to this chest.

The book somehow manages to be both sweet and prickly at the same time. The story is sprawling and covers a lot of area: Leda's naivety, Samuel's insecurities, the disappointments inherent in both characters' lives, and a plot involving a sword and Japan and unrequited love. It's a lot to handle. And I admit that I wasn't always into it. There were moments I absolutely couldn't get enough, often followed by moments where I yearned for the simple style and plots of someone like Lisa Kleypas. Plus, Kinsale's writing is really descriptive and flowery, which isn't quite my thing.

Yet, in the end, I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of this one. Kinsale is definitely different from Loretta Chase, whose style I tend to prefer. But she created something so unique that I couldn't help but follow along. It's rare that I feel like I'm reading a real book when I'm reading romance. However, The Shadow and the Star felt like a real book, with all its darkness of heart and elaborate feel. This book isn't quite at Lord of Scoundrels levels of awesomeness, but it's pretty darn close.

Next in Trashy Reads: After a nearly two-month-long hiatus, my trashy reading is back in full swing. I have a whole pile of new romances to read (mostly historicals, but also some old-school Nora Roberts), including another Laura Kinsale!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Autumn Song," by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I recently became obsessed with the six-episode BBC series Desperate Romantics. It follows the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, a group of three British Victorian painters. I highly recommend finding a copy of this series. It's funny, a little bizarre, and occasionally melodramatic, much like the actual lives it represents. Even better, a good chunk of the paintings done in these episodes are ones I've seen myself at The Tate London (one of my favorite art museums, I'll add).

One of the painters depicted in this series was also famous as a poet - Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Personally, I've always enjoyed the work of his sister, Christina Rossetti, a lot more. But I still think he has his merits. I'm not going to lie; I find this poem a little hacky (probably because that's how Rossetti comes off on the show). But I think it has a swiftness to it that's quite nice, and it shows a surprising restraint when it comes to wordiness.

But seriously - go out and watch Desperate Romantics. It's fabulous.

Autumn Song, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Six Days, Six Stories

To celebrate Fitzgerald Week this year, I decided to read one of his short stories every day. From Sunday to Friday, I picked a story each day that was either a)new to me or b)a favorite that I hadn't read in a long time. Here are quick reviews of each story, most of which came from the awesome collection The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, who before his death a few years ago was the leading Fitzgerald scholar and biographer.

Sunday - "Babes in the Woods": This was Fitzgerald's first published story and it shows up again in This Side of Paradise. It was an okay story; I wasn't a particularly big fan of it. But you can definitely see his emerging style and thematic obsessions in it.

Monday - "Absolution": This is one of my favorite Fitzgerald stories, but I hadn't read it in years. I enjoyed it more than ever this time around. You can see why this story was considered a kind of prologue for The Great Gatsby, and the final pages reminded me a lot of Marilynne Robinson's Gilead (this being a story about small towns and religion, after all). Most of all, I was impressed by the writing, which is really something.

Tuesday - "Crazy Sunday": This is another Fitzgerald story that I hadn't picked up since high school, but which I remember liking at the time. It's about Hollywood and marriage and betrayal. I understood the darkness in this story much better this time around, and I found it a richer experience now. It's pretty prickly for a Fitzgerald story (which are often considered "slick" pieces), and it features some of his most unlikeable characters, which is really saying something.

Wednesday - "The Lost Decade": This super-short piece is actually considered more of a sketch than a story, but it packs quite an emotional punch in its brevity. It was one of the last things he published, and it's definitley autobiographical in its portrayal of a former drunk's realization that he's completely let life pass him by. I really liked this one. A lot.

Thursday - "More Than Just a House": This is the first time I've ever read this story, and I found it really enjoyable. In it, a man becomes tied to three sisters after he saves the lives of two of them, and he's witness to their downfalls, all of which are tied into their rambling old house. I'm still not sure what to make of the ending of this one, but I would definitley read it again.

Friday - "Babylon Revisted": I've probably read this story half a dozen times, at least. It's one of the most painful things I've ever read, but it's so well done that I can't help but love it. Fitzgerald largely stays out of parent-child relationships in his work, but his own issues as a father are on full display in this one. It's sad and beautiful and really quite perfect. Definitely some of Fitzgerald's finest and most poignant writing.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

114 years ago today, F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Happy Birthday, F. Scott Fitzgerald!

Fitzgerald has been my favorite writer since I was fifteen, but I've always had a complicated relationship with him and his work. He led an extremely imperfect life and had some real weaknesses as a writer. But when he was at his best, he was better than anyone else. His best novels and short stories remain classics of American literature simply because he wrote about Americans so deftly.

Recently, I read Patricia Hampl's great introduction to The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it really hits the nail on the head when it comes to Fitzgerald's complex view towards his roots. He claimed to hate St. Paul, and yet that particular Midwestern, American viewpoint holds in nearly all his work. I've always thought that the line separating great writers from merely good writers lies somewhere in the place of formative experience. Most of my favorite writers are people who write from a particular viewpoint informed by the homes and towns and places from which they came. Fitzgerald is one of these writers. And so, I leave you with another one of my favorite passages from The Great Gatsby that plays into this idea. Here, the narrator Nick Carraway talks about his youth in Minnesota and his the disillusionment he found in the East.

That's my middle-west - not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am a part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family's name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all - Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old - even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg especially figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and lustreless moon. In the foreground four solemn men in dress suits are walking along the sidewalk with a stretcher on which lies a drunken woman in a white evening dress. Her hand, which dangles over the side, sparkles cold with jewels. Gravely the men turn in at a house - the wrong house. But no one knows the woman's name, and no one cares.

After Gatsby's death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes' power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

If You Like Fitzgerald...

I've always been a fan of book sites that do the "If you like this, you might enjoy this" stuff. So what's a better time to introduce this kind of post than right now, during Fitzgerald Week! Without further ado, here are five books you might like if you like Fitzgerald (or if you're just looking for a good read).

If You Like Fitzgerald...You Might Enjoy:

1. The Season of Lillian Dawes, by Katherine Mosby: Right on the book's back cover, there's a blurb comparing Mosby to Fitzgerald, so I'm not the first person to find a link between the two. This book is one of my "comfort reads" that I return to again and again. The story of two brothers and the mysterious woman they both take an interest in, it's got a lot of Fitzgeraldian themes: destructive wealth, a character who's basically a more sympathetic, female version of Jay Gatsby, and a lush writing style. I highly recommend this to anyone looking for a soft, easy read that makes everything feel like summer.

2. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: In yesterday's post, I mentioned that I found Fitzgerald's Midwestern viewpoint to be one of his most important characteristics. Robinson is the same, and with a writing style that's equally poetic and graceful. This story, a journal written to the young son of a dying preacher, reminds me of Fitzgerald's story "Absolution" in its depiction of small-town Midwestern values and images.

3. Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto: One of the things that makes The Great Gatsby so good is its strong sense of place. Both the book's setting and the places its characters come from are important to the story and writing. Pizzolatto's first novel is the same. The descriptions of the Gulf Coast, as well as the sense of the evocative places the characters once inhabited really add to the book's beauty and danger.

4. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway: In real life, Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a very contentious relationship (see Scott Donaldson's wonderful Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship). But this important novel offers a rare glimpse into the world that Fitzgerald knew well in Paris, a place of expatriates known as the Lost Generation. Not to mention that's it just an awesome book that everyone should read at some point in their lives (and which, admittedly, I really need to reread since it's been a few years).

5. Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell: Those of you who are familiar with this nonfiction book's subject (a travelogue of sorts centered around the first three U.S. presidential assassinations) are probably wondering why this made the list. But hear me out: Sarah Vowell has a wonderful love-hate relationship with America that I think closely mirrors Fitzgerald's own thoughts. She manages to celebrate and pick apart her country in equal measure, much like Fitzgerald did so carefully in his own work. Really, I think any of Vowell's books would be Fitzgerald-approved, but I think this is her most entertaining read. Even my younger brother, a non-reader, enjoyed this one.

Well everyone, that's the first installment of "If You Like...." If you have any suggestions for later installments, let me know. I plan to do another one next month.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

New to Fitzgerald?

I tend to get over-excited about Fitzgerald. I talk about him and his work all the time, but occasionally, I realize I'm talking about Fitzgerald with someone who's never read any of his work. Don't worry; I won't judge you if you've never read any Fitzgerald. After all, the list of important writers I've never read is downright shameful. But for those of you who might be new to Fitzgerald or might want to introduce him to someone, I thought I'd put together a guide for reading him. Hopefully, at least one person will find this guide useful.

Important Background Information: F. Scott Fitzgerald was born on Sept. 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father had no luck at business or money and the family lived in apartments, but Fitzgerald's mother's family was rich. Due to this wealthy family connection, Fitzgerald attended the best private schools and eventually ended up at Princeton. Although his literary talent began to flourish there, he was a terrible student and never did graduate. Eventually, he met Zelda Sayre, who came from a rich Southern family. She refused to marry him until he had money, so he finished his first (very successful) novel, This Side of Paradise, and won her hand. They lived a crazy life full of parties and hijinks, mainly on the East Coast. During this time, they had their only child, their daughter Scottie. Eventually, Fitzgerald and his family moved to France, where they were part of the infamous Lost Generation of writers and artists in Paris. They also spent a great deal of time living on the Riviera. Their marriage was tumultuous and riddled with personal problems. Zelda was mentally unstable (she eventually ended up in a mental institution, where she would die during in a building fire), and Fitzgerald was an alcoholic. Once the money and fun ran out, the couple returned to the United States. While Zelda lived part-time with her mother and part-time in an asylum, Fitzgerald became a screenwriter who made little money. In December 1940, he suffered a heart attack and died in Hollywood.

Important Themes to Understand: Fitzgerald is often called a chronicler of the Jazz Age. While it's true that his work does settle on a very specific generation of Americans, he goes beyond simply cataloguing their lives. Growing up without money inside a world of wealth had a lot of influence on his work. So often, his books and short stories suggest this central problem. It's as if Fitzgerald both hates the rich and yet wants so badly to be among their rank. Much of his work deals with this conflict, as well as the theme of West vs. East (particularly, the difficulty of Midwesterners adjusting to life on the East Coast). Many of the romantic relationships in his work reflect real life, particularly his marriage to Zelda. Often, his fictional couples simultaneously love each other and tear each other apart. There's not much in the way of happiness in Fitzgerald's work, although he's so good at displaying life in all its complexity that there is often joyful moments amidst the eventual ruin. His later works show a kind of sad resignation punctuated with a desire for change that never happens, much like the story of his own final years.

Where to Start: Obviously, The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald's most famous work, and with good reason. It's a masterpiece, so if you're going to read only one Fitzgerald book in your life, make it this one. However, I do think there are easier places to start. The first Fitzgerald book I read was his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Admittedly, what seemed so great about the book when I was young has worn off a bit as I've gotten older and wiser. It seems pretty self-involved at times. But I still believe it is a great place to start because there are a lot more characters and vignettes here than in other Fitzgerald novels, so you're more likely to find something you like. I also think it's good to start with his best short stories. They play with his pet themes and make good introductions to his novels. I think the best ones to start with are "Absolution" (which is actually quite different from Fitzgerald's other short stories but closely related to The Great Gatsby), "Winter Dreams" (nearly all of Fitz's favorite themes are there), and "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz."

Where to Eventually Go: Admittedly, F. Scott Fitzgerald's best short story, "Babylon Revisited," would work as a gateway into his work because it's so good. However, it isn't like his other stories, and I would argue that it's a richer read once you've become more familiar with his earlier work. I also wouldn't start with "May Day," a novella-length story that is more class-conscious than any of Fitzgerald's other work. That being said, I've always had a big place in my heart for "May Day," so it's an eventual must for any Fitzgerald reader. Along those lines, I wouldn't start with Tender is the Night or his unfinished final book, The Last Tycoon, either. I've met a lot of people - mostly lit professors - who think that Tender Is the Night is Fitzgerald's best work. I personally don't agree, as I find it well-written and constructed but lacking in the poetry and movement of Gatsby. However, it's one of the most important books of the 20th century, and shows a maturation of subject for Fitzgerald. Because The Last Tycoon is unfinished, it would be impossible to start with. It's an incredible piece, and I honestly believe that if Fitzgerald had lived to finish it, it might have been as good as, if not greate than, Gatsby. But it's not a good place to start at all. Once you've read a few of his books though, you absolutely have to pick this one up. It's really something.

The Must-Reads: So, whether you are new to Fitzgerald or an old hand, there are some of his works that are fantastic and will add something to your reading life. They include my all-time favorite novel, The Great Gatsby, the ambitious and depressing Tender Is the Night, and his best short story, "Babylon Revisted." I also think "Absolution," "May Day," and The Last Tycoon should never be overlooked.

Well, everyone, I hope you found this an informative introduction to the work of one of America's most important writers. Also, let me know if you agree or disagree with any of my choices. I also like to hear what other people think about Fitzgerald.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Fitzgerald Week!

Hello everyone! It's that time of year again, and once again, this blog will be dedicated to a week long celebration of F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthday (the actual day of honor is Friday the 24th). By now, you all know how obsessed I am with all things Fitzgerald, but this week isn't just about celebrating an alcoholic writer from 20s and 30s. Rather, it's a week for me to ruminate on how much books and language mean to me. It's a week to celebrate how important literature is to who I am as a person and a writer. I just happen to frame that celebration in the context of the man who's been my favorite novelist since I was fifteen. I'll be celebrating the week by reading a different Fitzgerald story every night and including lists and random thoughts related to his work on this blog. In the meantime, to kick off Fitzgerald Week, I thought I'd skip my Poem of the Week and post a Fitzgerald passage instead. And what would be more appropriate than some of the greatest paragraphs Fitzgerald wrote: the ending of The Great Gatsby. This is my favorite passage in all of American literature, and I am happy to share it whenever possible. Enjoy!

from The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity to wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby's wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dreams must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, in the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning --

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

A Curious Read

Book Reviewed: Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard

I finished this book three days ago, and I'm still not sure exactly what to make of it. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but in the end, it left me feeling kind of empty. It had all the makings of an entertaining read, but it didn't do much to fulfill me on an emotional or intellectual level.

Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer is a curious little book. In the beginning, the title character goes down to Hell to talk Satan into giving him his soul back. He gave it up in order to learn the art of necromancy years earlier. Cabal, who dabbles in all kinds of science and believes solely in cold logic, is forced to make a deal with the devil. If he uses an evil carnival to sign over 100 new souls to Satan in one year, then he will get his own soul back. Obviously, this takes a lot of work and very little pleasure on Cabal's side, and he is constantly foiled by both external and internal forces. The first half of the book roughly chronicles the first 360-some days, while nearly the entire second half focuses only on the last two or three.

For me, this set up could have exploded with readerly possibilities. There's so much to be wrestled with - Hell's interference, the inherent distrust in a crew made up of the dead and nonexistent, Cabal's own conscience - that I expected a lot more than what ended up happening. I felt like certain questions of morality and mortality were going to be brought up, and then just as they seemed to flash across the page, they disappeared. I think Howard is talented, and he's certainly inventive. But I'm not sure he himself knew exactly what to do with the basic problem he set up: the wrongness of persuading people to give up their souls. In creating the characters he did, Howard attempted to deal with this problem without actually causing the kind of (appropriate) chaos the story needed.

Johannes Cabal is a definite anti-hero; he's one of the most morally corrupt protagonists I've ever encountered (although not so much by choice as by nature). This means our moral voice comes from somewhere else. In this case, it's Horst Cabal, Johannes's charming and honest brother. Eight years earlier, Horst was turned into a vampire during one of Johannes's experiments-gone-wrong. Now, hoping to be returned to his human form, he goes along with his brother's schemes. However, Horst has the heart that Johannes doesn't. He only allows already-corrupt people to face damnation, and in the end, he's the only thing coming between his brother and evil intent. Yet, despite how much I couldn't help but like Horst, he never felt like much more than a convenient plot device, especially at the end. I felt let down by both his and Johannes's character development, which really dissatisfied me as reader.

This book does have occasionally wonderful passages and lines, particularly when it hits emotionally powerful situations, particularly in moments between the brothers. The section in which Johannes goes to get Horst managed to be funny, sad, and frightening all at once. In that scene, Howard does a great job at making allusions to the horrible mistake of the past that damned Horst while balancing the current tension between the brothers. I also quite liked an early chapter in which Cabal helps a trapped ghost make it to the other side, one of the only moments of any kind of humanity we see from him.

Unfortunately, what should have been the book's most powerful and devastating scene in the penultimate chapter ended up feeling a little too slapdash due to the scenes leading up to it, as Horst confronts Johannes at the final hour. This misbegotten scene also brought up the problematic questions I had throughout the book: If Johannes Cabal is missing his soul, then how does he have any kind of emotional or moral capability at all? How can Horst change his brother if he's missing the thing needed to lead to that change? These questions seemed pretty insignificant as I read the book, but they really began to bother me by the time I hit the end.

And, oh that ending. This summer, Howard released the sequel to this book: Johannes Cabal, the Detective (actually, it looks like these Cabal books are the first two of a series), which must answer to the giant information dump we get at the end of Necromancer. On the very last page, we find out the reason why Cabal wanted his soul back so badly. And while I get why Howard left it to the absolute end like that in order to properly tell this story, I still felt cheated by it. I think books in a series still need to stand by themselves as great works, and with that ending, this book kind of refused to stand on its own, which annoyed me.

So there you go. I'm still not sure what to make of Johannes Cabal, the Necromancer. I enjoyed the set-up, some of the brotherly interactions, and a handful of great scenes. But in the end, I wasn't satisfied by what I'd experienced, and it left the whole thing feeling kind of flat. The book itself is a little too much like its protagonist: a lot of flash, no soul, and with some occasional emotion that didn't feel earned. Curious indeed.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Some Notes

Hey, everyone. Other than posting reviews and poems, I feel like I've been pretty out of touch with this blog. So I thought I'd send a few notes your way to reassure you that I am getting this thing under control again.

  • I promise to get some more fun content back on here. I've been missing my lists, occasional passages, and random thoughts as much as I hope you have. I'm also going to do more open letters to writers, both dead and living. Since I've changed jobs, I've slacked off in the fun department, so I hope to return to more exciting posts soon.

  • Next week is Fitzgerald's Birthday. Like last year, I'll be celebrating with a week-long look at all things Fitzgerald. Also, I'm tackling an enormous Fitz biography which might take me awhile to finish.

  • Finally, look at this website! It's a blog of random letters from various people at various times. A new letter is posted every weekday, and it is awesome. I'm particularly obsessed with the literary heavyweight's letters, although I am also a fan of this sweet letter by actor/nerd Wil Wheaton. Enjoy!

Anyway, if anyone has any suggestions about things I should add to this blog, I am always happy to hear them. Post in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Continuing My Nonfiction Roll...

Book Reviewed: Hot Time in the Old Town: The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Making of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edward P. Kohn

Lately, I can't get enough of the TV show, The West Wing. Back in middle school, this was my favorite show. I was in love with half the characters, and I wanted to be friends with the other half. In my youth, I was a politics junkie, so this show fit right into my lifestyle. As I've gotten older and busier, I find myself spending less time thinking and reading about politics (I still follow the news; I just don't follow politics much, even though I'm still pretty damn opinionated about my own views). Becoming reacquainted with The West Wing has also turned me towards politics once again. The best part of the show is seeing how people who want to do good deal within a world that doesn't always allow them to do so. Sometimes, compromises have to be made and others have to suffer for them. It's a very realistic look at the way government functions.

About the same time I started rewatching this awesome show about a fake president and his fake White House staff, I saw an interview with history professor Edward P. Kohn about his new book, Hot Time in the Old Town. Right away, I knew I needed to go out and find a copy. The book combines some of my favorite history topics - Teddy Roosevelt, labor issues at the turn of the century, the shifting values of the old Democratic and Republican parties - and some of my favorite political topics - urban vs. rural attitudes, issues of poverty and class warfare, etc. The book centers on a ten-day heat wave in New York City in August 1896. During that time, the heat index was as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, and poor people living in dirty, unventilated tenements suffered the worst of the spell. Overall, around 1,300 people died as a result of the heat. Babies and overworked laborers collapsed and expired in waves around the Lower East Side. Meanwhile, Teddy Roosevelt, who was at that point fairly unlucky in politics and serving as Police Commissioner, helped to combat the worst of the heat by overseeing free handouts of ice to the poorest citizens. Roosevelt was one of the only city leaders to take any kind of action during the heat wave, a fact that Kohn made a lot out of in his interviews.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure it was the strongest argument in the book. I've been a Teddy Roosevelt fan for a few years now, probably due to some of Sarah Vowell's essays about the complicated man he was. I don't agree with a good chunk of his political views, but I think he's a fascinating figure who really did try to change his country for the better and who helped the lower classes as well as he could. Plus, you know, teddy bears! And while Kohn certainly lets us see the complex figure that was Roosevelt, I didn't quite see him as the star of this book.

Rather, the main man of interest here seems to be William Jennings Bryan, a whiz-kid Democratic presidential nominee (you might know him better as the prosecutor from the Scopes "monkey" trial) who had the extreme misfortune of giving an important political speech right in the middle of the heat wave. Due to a series of blunders and an inability to see beyond his rural morality, Bryan failed spectacularly in New York City and eventually lost the election to McKinley (whose eventual assassination, I should add, is one of my favorite history topics. I'm weird like that). Kohn spends a lot of time on Bryan, and I found this story fascinating. I'm just not sure why the book wasn't subtitled "The Great Heat Wave of 1896 and the Fall of William Jennings Bryan" instead. To make matters worse, Roosevelt was enjoying a breezier beach climate during the worst days of the heat. Which I would have done, too. But it wasn't what I expected from the interviews.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. It felt a little repetetive at times, but Kohn's obviously a talented historian. His argument at the end of the book that heat waves are a tragically overlooked natural devastation to people and places made a lot of sense to me after reading his examination of this particular case. It's a nice little piece of history that I certainly had never heard of before, and I enjoyed learning about it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Poem of the Week: "My Parents' Dance Lessons," by Alison Townsend

This last Thursday marked my parents' 27th wedding anniversary, and on that day, I happened to stumble on this poem at the Writer's Almanac. I thought these two events fit together quite nicely. Since it's a little on the longer side, and since I really want you all to get acquainted with how awesome the Writer's Almanac is, I'm going to give you the link instead of the poem itself. Sorry. I hope you can forgive me when you see how sweetly personal this poem is. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Pop Culture Nerds Re-Unite

Book Reviewed: Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, by Chuck Klosterman

Having been so intrigued by Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs last week, I decided to try another Chuck Klosterman book. I went with Chuck Klosterman IV, which is a collection of articles and essays he's written for various magazines from 1996-2006 plus a fairly autobiographical short story. In general, I didn't like this book quite as much as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Because these were magazine pieces that had been printed before, they weren't as long or as complex as his essays published in that book.

Of course, that didn't mean this book didn't have its own gems. I was a big fan of "Crazy Things Seem Normal, Normal Things Seem Crazy," a 2005 feature about Val Kilmer. I've always thought Kilmer, while a little weird, seemed like a cool enough guy, so it was fun to see Klosterman interact with him. I also liked "The Karl Marx of the Hardwood" (about one of my favorite basketball players, Steve Nash), "Ghost Story" (an article on Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, which made me promptly go and put some Wilco CDs on hold at the library), "Not Guilty" (in which Klosterman rails against the idea of "guilty pleasures"), and "Television" (a hilarious piece wherein Klosterman chronicles watching VH1 Classic for 24 straight hours).

In my review of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, I mentioned that I often found myself openly disagreeing with Klosterman. That happens a lot here, too. I think I'd like him if I met him, but I don't know if we could ever be great friends. And I have to admit that when I read his work, I pine for the opinions of some women (I really don't think Klosterman has a very nuanced view of women). In fact, I think I may have to tackle some Sarah Vowell as a counter-read. Overall, though, I still like Klosterman and I would say this book was decently entertaining. Even better, it made me get out my Led Zeppelin CDs, which I haven't listened to in quite some time. Man, does Robert Plant have the world's sexiest sexy voice ever or what?

Note: It's Leo Tolstoy's birthday! I love Tolstoy's books and characters; I think he's probably the most important novelist of all time. However, I've always disliked Tolstoy's opinions and lifestyle. Oh well. Happy Birthday, Leo!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Now I Kind of Want to Be an Astronaut

Book Reviewed: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach.

I think I want to be Mary Roach when I grow up. This is the second science book by Roach that I've read in the last month, and I assume that I will tackle her other two in the months to come. Her writing is so clean and easy to follow, and she manages to make science - which has never been my thing - understandable and fun. She's just so damn cool. I haven't read enough nonfiction in the last year, but due to Mary Roach, I'm finding myself unable to stop lately. She makes me yearn to be smarter and better informed. What more could you ask from a person who writes about science? There's a reason all her books end up on the bestsellers' lists.

Anyway, my newfound Mary Roach obsession propelled me to her brand new book, Packing for Mars. It's about space exploration and all the strange things that entails. Like all of Roach's books, this one is broken into chapters that are little units explaining a specific subtopic that feeds into the main topic. In this case, we get chapters about space hygeine, the necessary psychological makeup of an astronaunt, the development of astronaut food, and much more. Basically, the book boils down to this: What does it take for someone to go up to a place without gravity and be there for a given amount of time? A lot more than I ever imagined, of course.

I've never been a space person. I know lots of people who talk about how badly they wanted to be astronaunts when they grew up. I know kids who are obsessed with planets and stars. Not me. When I was a kid, I thought of space as being the opposite of cool; it was an upside-down hell where disaster lurked behind fathomless corners. After reading Packing for Mars, though, I've kind of become one of those space-loving little kids. Suddenly, I want to be an astronaut.

Not that Roach makes the lifestyle look glamorous. In fact, I didn't realize just how important gravity was until I read this book. Chapter Fourteen, lovingly titled "Separation Anxiety," about going to the bathroom in space, particularly made me want to kiss gravity on the mouth. But to see what all has come out of the space program (did you know sports bras came out of NASA research?) is quite amazing, and by the end of the book, I was in full support of Roach's argument that going to Mars would do the world some good.

So I can't quite stress enough how cool this book was. There were definitely moments I found more exciting than others; some of the chapters could be a little boring in comparison to others. But the good stuff outweighed the bad enough to make this book a definite winner for me. There are a lot hilarious and insightful anecdotes in here - about monkeys in space and astronaut motion sickness and people who get paid to not get out of bed for three months. Especially entertaining were some of the transcripts from actual NASA missions, which Roach clearly spent a ridiculous amount of time sifting through. The book even manages to be quite poignant in Chapter 13 ("Withering Heights"), which is about the dangers of re-entry into earth's atmosphere and individual free falling. I don't want to give away the moment, but Roach meets a scientist with a very personal connection to what he studies. She does it in a way that's brief and understated, but which gets at the heart of this book: that the people involved in the space industry are passionate about what they do. That's why it would be be cool to work for NASA. Whether you're the astronaut or the man who designed a screw on his helmet, you get to do what you love and see a glimpse of something so immense and outside of yourself that it can't even be earthbound. You get to work for a goal that's literally infinite. That would kick ass.

Side Note: I really enjoyed this review that the AV Club did with Roach a couple weeks ago. She seems as laidback and fun in person as her writing would suggest:,44625/

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pop Culture Nerds Unite!

Book Reviewed: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto, by Chuck Klosterman

I am a huge pop culture nerd. I spend a good chunk of my free time reading book, music, and movie reviews. I troll pop culture-related blogs and websites for at least an hour a day. I'm pretty sure I know more useless information about meaningless stuff than most people know about important stuff. It's an addiction I can't stop. Occasionally, I meet someone else who cares about meaningless things as much as I do. Relationships formed over pop culture have been known to lead to lasting friendships for me, and pop culture has formed a major building block in the bond between my younger brother and me as we've grown up. Like junkies, us pop culture nerds seek each other out and inform each other's bad habits.

Which is why I knew I needed to read some Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is a major presence in pop culture writing. Over the last fifteen years, he's been a music and film columnist, a sportswriter, and a pretty famous essayist. His books are basically required reading for everyone who believes that stupid stuff means more than we realize. People like me. Really, it's amazing that I haven't read Klosterman before. With all his books at my disposal in the library, I now feel it's my duty as a pop nerd to read all of them.

I decided to start with the most logical choice: Klosterman's most famous book of essays, 2003's Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I read the book in only two days, as I find nonfiction to read really fast for me. At first, I was surprised by how many disagreements I found myself having with Klosterman. I didn't really agree with half his opinions and ideas. But I still liked the book a lot. Compulsively readable and almost always fun, the essays took on such a variety of topics that I found it hard to be bored. Despite not always getting along with Klosterman, I respected his thoughts quite a bit, and I knew I found a literary soulmate in all his ruminations about useless things. As I mentioned earlier, us pop culture nerds need each other.

When I read the book's second essay, "Billy Sim," I felt like Klosterman could read my thoughts. Here it was, an essay about the video game The Sims that basically spoke about all my complicated feelings regarding this supremely weird pasttime. By the time he kills his own character by ignoring him, I was laughing pretty hard. The same goes for "Sulking with Lisa Loeb on the Ice Planet Hoth" (about how the Star Wars movies are both extremely overhyped and yet capture the angst of an entire generation) and "The Awe-Inspiring Beauty of Tom Cruise's Shattered, Troll-like Face" (about Klosterman's inability to understand why film critics are so obsessed with depictions of reality in film, which is particularly interesting to me since I've become obsessed with Inception). As a fellow Midwesterner from a ridiculously small town, I "get" Klosterman quite often. In "Toby over Moby," Klosterman argues that popular, overly-sentimental country music is actually more genuine than the kind of gritty, indie-type country music that critics and hipsters love, an argument with which I wholeheartedly agree.

For me, though, the best essay in this collection is "Being Zach Morris," which is about Saved by the Bell. I've actually never watched that particular show, but his thoughts on the subject of a certain kind of Saturday-morning-esque show for adolescents is surprisingly astute. The end of the essay argues that the show's later episodes - in which two of the lead girls left the show for awhile, got replaced, then came back while the replacement disappeared - are more lifelike than most television programs. Klosterman argues that that's how actual high school and college memories work. We think of a particular group of people and imagine they were with us all the time. It's only if we dissect our memories that we realize certain people disappear for long stretches or that people we hardly remembered we actually hung out with quite a bit. I found myself surprisingly moved by Klosterman's funny opinions on a show I don't even care about.

And in the end, that is all you can ask from good pop culture writing. So, even if I wasn't always in love with this book or its writer, that hasn't stopped me from wanting to read more of Chuck Klosterman's work. In fact, I have another one of his books on my desk right now....

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Flower Power

Book Reviewed: Selected Poems, by Amy Lowell (edited with introduction by Honor Moore)

Despite being a pretty popular poet and a Pulitzer Prize winner in her own time, Amy Lowell is probably more famous for being related to Robert Lowell, one of the biggest poets of the 20th century. I always thought this was kind of annoying (not to mention sexist), so I decided to try Amy's poems myself.

To be honest, I think I might be more of a Robert Lowell person. His poetry is so hyper-intelligent and obsessed with history and the bizarre aspects of life that I can't help but like it. Amy Lowell's work is more personal and internal, which made for some great reading. But in the end, only a handful of her poems stood out to me.

Why is this? Well, I blame it on the flowers.

There are a lot of flowers in these poems. Everytime I opened to a page, I was choked with their scents. Granted, in many of Lowell's poems - particularly her later work - the flowers stood for other things: emotions, sexuality, life and death. Poem to poem, this would not have bothered me. But because I read an entire book of these poems from end to end, it made it a little hard to take after awhile. If it hadn't been for all the flowers and gardens, I probably would have liked Amy Lowell's Selected Poems quite a bit more.

This isn't to say that Amy Lowell isn't a great poet. She is. Despite all these poems being from the first two decades of the 20th century, they are among some of the more erotically-charged poetry I've ever read. Feminine power and sexuality is on full display here, although it's hidden inside the language and subject choice. Reading this book, I was consistently impressed by how "out there" Lowell managed to be at times. Her translations of Chinese poetry and the her own poems that that poetry inspired were my favorites in the collection. Lowell knows how to turn a phrase. And holy crap, does she know how to rock verbs. I am always amazed by how good some writers are at using particular aspects of language to their advantage, and Lowell is a great example of this. Her work can be violent, erotic, or emotional just based on her verb choices or her graphic turns of phrase.

Over all, I am glad I read Amy Lowell. She's an important poet who should never be overlooked in exchange for her more famous relative. Plus, she had fightin' words with Ezra Pound, for which I am always a fan (if I could go back and punch any famous writer in the face, Pound is pretty high on my list). It's too bad she had me - a non-flower person - as a reader.