End of Amnesia

Roddy paulaBecause I’ve never been an addict myself, or had to deal with anyone else’s addiction in any meaningful way, it’s always been sort of an abstract concept.  I’ve viewed addiction in much the same way I viewed cancer before my mom was diagnosed with it in 1995 – as a horrible problem that must be terrible to live with but whose various indignities and anxieties never seemed all that real.  But then someone you care about is diagnosed with it, and all the little details that you never had to think about previously (scheduling events as mundane as errands in the “good” window after chemotherapy appointments; adjusting to a bland diet; being embarrassed by and helping others not be embarrassed by wigs and head wraps) suddenly become all too real.  Addiction is, I imagine, much the same in this regard, and it’s to Roddy Doyle’s credit that Paula Spencer  helped me see that in a way I never have before. The book tackles both addiction and cancer (although much more the former than the latter), but it does it in a way that strikes a pretty even balance between humor and pathos, ensuring it’s not just a relentless slog through misery.

Part of that description, though, is a little disingenuous of me.  You hear “addiction story” and most likely think of Trainspotting or Less Than Zero or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or any number of memoirs written by personalities famous and not-famous alike, detailing the way they got hooked and (usually) eventually kicked their habit.  Paula Spencer, by contrast, is very much a victory narrative, albeit a halting, tentative one.  The title character is a 48-year-old recovering alcoholic, four months dry at the start of the book.  She’s also a survivor of spousal abuse (see this book’s predecessor, 1996’s The Woman Who Walked Into Doorsfor all the details), a housecleaner with four children whose husband Charlo was gunned down by the police after robbing a bank and taking a hostage.  At the beginning she’s barely hanging on, still counting the months since her last drink:

The drink is only part of it.  She’s coped well with the drink.  She wants a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She doesn’t want a drink.  She fights it.  She wins.  She’s proud of that.  She’s pleased.   She’ll keep going.  She knows she will.

Two of her children, Leanne (20) and Jack (16), live with her.  Jack is the good kid, quiet and awkward, whose biggest problem is getting suspended for calling a teacher “useless” on ratemyteachers.com; Leanne, she fears (probably rightfully), is joining her in alcoholism.  Her other two children, grown and with children of their own, are Nicola and John Paul.  The heart of the book is watching Paula negotiate her relationships with these four, especially the three oldest, all whom remember her at her worst.  And that’s one thing Doyle does remarkably well, something I’d never actually considered when it comes to addiction: How the recovering addict is essentially split in two to the people who care about him or her.  There’s the “new” person who is trying to set each foot right on the road to recovery, but there’s also the “old” person who was duplicitous or manipulative or cruel or, in Paula’s case, occasionally violent herself.  So while Paula’s family is happy to see her doing better, there’s also the memory of who she was, and the fear that she’ll return to that state.  It’s a constant state of living in two places – two different times, really – at once, which has to be one of the unsettling things to do.

Paula also has two sisters, neither of whom she has ever been close to: Denise, who’s married and having an affair with a married man, and Carmela, around whom the cancer subplot revolves.  The book captures a year in Paula’s life with these people as she struggles to get her life back on track.  It isn’t a story that deals in melodrama or huge, cathartic sequences.  Like life, Paula’s progress is charted hesitantly, in the way her relationship with her sisters improves, in an invitation to visit John Paul’s house, in her buying a stereo and the new U2 album.  In contrast to one of my recent reviews, where I wrote that a bunch of stuff happens and none of it matters, Paula Spencer is a book where not much happens but it’s all important.  And, crucially, sometimes it’s in the not happening that some of the biggest growth happens.  You likely know those moments: the not-so-awkward silences with someone you care about; a meaningful glance; a conversation about music or the weather that carries the subtext of an epic poem.

It’s really just a lovely little book.  It doesn’t have the impact of Doyle’s The Commitments or A Star Called Henry, but as a modest tale of a woman struggling to be good and make things right with the people she loves, Paula Spencer is as real, and as revelatory, as literature gets.


Current listening:

Rocketship certain

Rocketship – A Certain Smile, a Certain Sadness (1996)

Bad Love Is Easy to Do

Boyle womenConsidering how consistently, shockingly good he is, it always surprises me how few people have read T.C. Boyle.  Of his fifteen novels, at least four are stone-cold classics and one of them deserves to be canonized.  The most compelling thing about his work is the way he’s able to graft fairly weighty issues onto narrative engines that develop and maintain some serious momentum; they never get bogged down in their own importance at the expense of telling an entertaining tale.  He’s equally adept at writing purely fictional tales like The Tortilla Curtain (Mexican immigration), A Friend of the Earth (environmental collapse), and Talk Talk (identity theft and digital security) and historical fiction that mines the lives of real people for allegorical heft: World’s End (explorer Mungo Park); The Inner Circle (sex researcher Alfred Kinsey); and The Women (the wives – and loves – of architect Frank Lloyd Wright).  Underlying all these tales is a vague sense of creeping dread: Boyle’s novels rarely end well for any of his characters.  I don’t know how he does it, but his books never fail to make me deeply uncomfortable.  I realize that’s not for everyone.

fallingwater-2This is certainly true of The Women, a book which, I have to admit, seemed overly – and unusually – simplistic for much of its length before deepening and darkening in its final third.  By telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story (you know his work: Fallingwater, at right; the Guggenheim Museum; Robie House) through his interactions with four women, Boyle almost seems to be angling for an oddly crass subtext that goes something like this: “Bitches be crazy.”  I’ve always known Boyle to imbue his characters with a rich and complex inner life, so the way the characters, and one in particular (whom I’ll discuss in a moment), are drawn left me with some difficult questions.

Before getting to that shortcoming, though, it’s worth talking about the book’s structure, which is kind of brilliant.  Boyle’s novel focuses, as I said, on Wright’s relationships with four women, but it’s told in the form of a novel written by Tadashi Sato, a fictional apprentice of Wright’s at Taliesin (the architect’s Wisconsin compound), and translated by the equally fictional Seamus O’Flaherty.  So it’s Boyle telling Frank Lloyd Wright’s story through the eyes of four women as related by a Japanese architect and translated by an Irish American author.  Oh, and the whole thing is told in reverse chronological order.  In addition to the narrative possibilities afforded by the unconventional structure, Boyle also has fun with the conceit in other ways, commenting on the occasional floridness of his prose by pawning it off on the translator.  At one point Boyle writes, ” . . . he could think of nothing but the excitement of the affair at hand, the old libidinous fires restoked . . .” and footnotes it with an aside from Sato: “One of those curious overheated phrases of O’Flaherty-San, which we will let stand.”  It’s fun watching an author of Boyle’s talent play. I eat this stuff up.

So the novel begins its first proper chapter (after a lengthy introduction where we meet Sato and Wright and are oriented to life at Taliesin) by telling the story of how Wright met third wife Olgivanna while still married to second wife Miriam; then it skips backward to show us how he met Miriam after the tragic (real-life) murder of his lover Mamah and her two children; then goes backward one step further to show us his introduction to Mamah while still married to first wife Kitty.  It’s not really a book about Wright, except in how we see him reflected in the eyes of Sato and the women who love him, so anyone wanting Wright’s biography will be disappointed (although I certainly learned more about Wright from The Women than I expected).

And that brings me to the problem I mentioned earlier.  The women, as related by Boyle through Sato and O’Flaherty, aren’t particularly likable.  I don’t see this as a problem by itself.  I don’t demand likable characters.  Flawed is good.  Flawed is real.  But Olgivanna, his third wife and thirty years his junior, is really the only one who comes off at all positively (although by the time Sato meets her at Taliesin she’s a stern taskmaster, worn down by life).  Kitty is more or less a non-entity, the spurned wife who won’t grant him a divorce.  Mamah is a pretentious, solipsistic Free Spirit™ who views her affair with Wright as a way of thumbing her nose at conventionality and the patriarchy.  And Miriam, an obsessive, drug-addicted Southern belle, takes up much of the narrative in troubling ways.  She’s given to flights of extreme melodrama, picking fights with Wright, leaving him at the drop of a hat, and eventually stalking him (and resorting to threats and vandalism) when he takes up with Olgivanna during one of their separations.

Maybe all this happened.  Maybe Boyle is playing it straight.  But it does trouble me that none of the women are here to defend themselves.  Miriam especially is painted as such a horrible shrew that I simultaneously felt bad for her and wanted Wright to push her in front of a streetcar.  And that’s kind of a shame, because the book really is otherwise excellent.  Wright (as a character) is certainly fascinating, even while it’s still a mystery to me why he was so popular with the ladies (charisma, I guess; some men have it.), and Boyle relates his various struggles (with money, with building Taliesin and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, with – of course – women) in prose that is as evocative as ever.

And the final third is, as I mentioned at the top, painted in Boyle’s typical shades of black.  Ending with Mamah’s murder (and this isn’t a spoiler; it’s alluded to throughout the book and it’s in the historical record, fer cryin’ out loud) seems in some ways to be an indictment of Wright’s relentless philandering.  Her death is what led to his calamitous relationship with Miriam (they met after she wrote to him upon reading of Mamah’s murder in the news), and it cast a pall over Taliesin for years.  I don’t know if it’s technically the moral of the story – keep it in your pants, boys! – but it’s no accident that Boyle ended The Women with one of their deaths.

The copy on the back of the book reads, “Is it easy to live with a genius?”  The definitive answer seems to be “no.”  But Boyle also makes it clear that it takes a particular kind of woman to want to live with a genius . . . and the result is never going to be good.


Current listening:

Smiths louder

The Smiths – Louder Than Bombs (1987)

Set the Tigers Free

Don savagesThere is, I think, a tendency to feel like good literature has to be hard work for the reader.  If you’re not struggling with complexity of plot or density of language or you’re not busily unraveling the complex web of characters the author has spun, it’s just not worth your time. Like medicine, if literature is to be good for you it can’t taste too sweet or be too easy to swallow.  It has to make you scowl and stick out your tongue.

This is the same kind of rule that largely defines the high school canon, where literature that students might actually be interested in reading is viewed as less weighty, less rigorous, less important, and so it’s jettisoned in favor of the old standbys, the books that conventional wisdom claims will turn students into better people at the expense of any interest they might have in ever picking up another book.  If you’re not a regular reader and what you’re given to read does nothing for you, why would you ever think it could be anything else?  Some authors have recently been pushing back on this notion.  Michael Chabon comes most readily to mind, but there are certainly others who have been dabbling in and endorsing genre fiction, elevating its status and reminding us that a conventional story well told has just as much value as whatever weighty tome the critics are currently lauding.  Put the best of Elmore Leonard against the best of Thomas Pynchon, and I can tell you which I’d prefer 100% of the time.

(Pssssst.  It’s Leonard.)

Don Winslow’s Savages is maybe the best recent example of Chabon’s argument I’ve encountered.  It’s genre fiction through and through, but it’s also a pure adrenaline rush with a knowing smirk, a hard-boiled thriller that borrows stylistic tools from Ellroy and a sense of humor from Vonnegut, if Vonnegut spiked his altruism with a bitter vein of nihilism.  It’s better written than any pitch-black revenge story has a right to be, Winslow’s hyper-kinetic prose shuttling the reader effortlessly between Laguna Beach and Mexico. It’s also a story of nuanced characters and complex motivations.  And, important in the context of my first two paragraphs, it’s an incredibly easy read; 300 pages that go down like a glass of lemonade on a sweaty summer day.

We know what we’re in for from the very beginning.  Here’s the sum total, the entire contents, of Chapter 1:

Fuck you.

From there, Winslow puts his foot to the pedal and doesn’t ease up until he reaches his destination.  It’s short chapters and bare bones, almost poetic, description, such as in a passage that sets up the primary difference between the two main characters.  Chon, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ben, a quasi-hippie world traveler, are also heavy-duty pot dealers – a drugged-up Abbot and Costello, a THC-infused yin and yang – and Winslow establishes the difference in their worldview thusly:

“Don’t fuck with people at all”

Is a central tenet of Ben’s personal as well as business philosophy.

Ben is a self-described Baddhist, i.e., a “bad Buddhist,” because he sometimes eats meat, gets angry, rarely meditates, and definitely does consciousness-altering substances.  But the basics of Buddhism, Ben is down with –

Do no harm

Which Ben articulates as

Don’t fuck with people.

And he doesn’t think the Dalai Lama would argue with that.


Ben strives to be nonviolent and honest in a business that is violent and dishonest.

“But it doesn’t have to be,” Ben has argued.

“But it is,” Chon countered.

“But it shouldn’t be.”

“Okay, but so what?”

Well, so what is that Ben has taken 99 percent of the violence and dishonesty out of his business, but that other 1 percent is –

– where Chon comes in.

Ben doesn’t need to know what Ben doesn’t need to know.

“You’re the American public,” Chon tells him.

And Chon has ample experience with that.

The third corner of this triangle is O (short for Ophelia) a free spirit not too far removed from the manic pixie dream girl template – if that template can stretch to include a manic pixie dream girl who’s a shopping-obsessed, sexually voracious, drug-munching layabout.  She loves both Ben and Chon, and both of them love her, and, in a clever twist, there’s no romantic rivalry.  It’s an idyllic little situation they’ve got going for them, making money hand over fist and drifting from day to day in a haze that may or may not (but usually does) involve weed.  And the occasional threesome.

This is all well and good until the Baja Cartel contacts Ben and Chon and lets them know they’re taking over the duo’s trade.  When Ben and Chon tell them they just want out, full stop, the Cartel (in the form of Elena the matriarch and Lado her right-hand goon) kidnap O and tell Ben and Chon they’ll either work for the Cartel for three years (maintaining their current client base and profits) or they’ll kill O.  Ben finagles a deal where they can buy O’s freedom for $20 million (an estimate of what they’d make for the Cartel in three years), if they can come up with the scratch.

For Chon, it’s a simple equation:

Chon divides the world into two categories of people:

Him, Ben, and O

Everybody Else.

He’d do anything for Ben and O.

For Ben and O he’d do anything to Everybody Else.

With this in mind, and realizing that A) they can’t leave O with the Cartel for three years,  and B) they don’t have $20 million, Ben and Chon make the only reasonable choice: use Chon’s military expertise to start hitting the Cartel’s drop houses and stealing their money which they’ll then launder to buy O’s freedom.

(In Winslow’s hands, it makes perfect sense.)

What follows is a brutal, inexorable battle of wills and wits between Ben and Chon and the Cartel.  It doesn’t necessarily tread new ground – part of the conflict is watching the generally peaceful Ben descend into savagery (notice the title) – but Winslow renders it new through the sheer dexterity of his prose.

It does get a little too self-consciously nudge nudge wink wink at times – O befriends one of her Cartel captors, who asks her to friend him on Facebook when she’s released – but it generally fits the knowing smirk that Winslow brings to a story of human brutality that could easily sink into unrelenting bleakness.

The whole thing is, as dark as it gets, consistently fun and undeniably exhilarating.  I know there are some who would dismiss Savages on that basis alone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that even though it’s only January, Savages will be one of the best books I read all year.


Current listening:

Matt kill

Matt Berry – Kill the Wolf


The End Is Still Unclear

Sigler contagiousOne book ago I wrote about the problems facing the middle book in any trilogy.  First books get to do all the expositional heavy lifting, introducing characters and building worlds.  Third books move all the pieces into place for what will, with any luck, be a satisfying conclusion.  Second books are sort of in limbo.  They move the story along, but there isn’t necessarily a narrative expectation they need to fulfill that’s as clear-cut as a beginning or an ending.  For that reason, second books run the risk of standing in place, throwing a lot of obstacles at characters without necessarily accomplishing much.  This was a problem that hit the last book I read, Ransom Riggs’ Hollow City, especially hard.  As I wrote in that review, a lot of stuff happened and none of it mattered.  The characters traveled, some things happened to them, they overcame some challenges, and if the events of the last ten pages had been moved to the beginning of Book 3, nothing in Book 2 would have mattered at all.

Scott Sigler’s Contagious, on the other hand, demonstrates what second books can do in the right hands.  Infected, the first book in his trilogy about a heretofore unknown disease, introduced the key players – CIA agent Dew Phillips; CDC doctor Margaret Montoya; Montoya’s CIA bodyguard, Clarence Otto; and “Scary” Perry Dawsey, a hulking ex-college football player who spent most of the first book dealing with his infection by employing various sharp objects on himself – and explored (often in gruesome detail) the truth about this new disease that first manifests itself in tiny blue triangles on victims’ skin before eventually hatching alien crawlers whose sole purpose is building a gateway that will welcome our alien overlords to the planet.  At the end of the book the first gate is destroyed, Dawsey is in Montoya’s custody for research purposes, and it seems as though disaster has been averted.

Fast-forward four months.  At the start of Contagious, Dawsey has escaped and is single-handedly executing anyone still infected with the disease.  Phillips is tracking him down because Dawsey, as a byproduct of his cured infection, has sort of an extraterrestrial homing device embedded in his brain that both leads him to other infected and clues him in to where other gates may be built.  This becomes especially important once the characters realize the intelligence behind the disease has figured out a way to mutate it in a crucial way that puts the entire planet at risk. (Before going any further, let me acknowledge how ridiculous this all sounds.  Trust me that it makes sense in the world Sigler builds; any preposterousness is due to my poor attempt to encapsulate a 400-page book in a single paragraph.)

So how does Contagious succeed as a second book where Hollow City failed?  First, and most important, it’s down to the characters.  Rather than just have Dawsey go on a rampage a second time, Sigler very cannily moves him from the antagonist column in Book 1 to the protagonist column in Book 2.  Phillips understands that Dawsey is more useful as an ally and guide, and the reluctant friendship that develops between the aging CIA agent and the headstrong former football player is one of the book’s high points.  Montoya develops, too, gradually shedding the idealism and altruism she wore as a badge of honor throughout Infected and in the beginning of Contagious as she slowly comes to realize the hard truth of what it will take to cure the disease.  Unlike Hollow City, where the characters seem to exist in a vacuum, unaffected by the various ordeals they endure, Contagious treats its characters as real people – and real people change in the face of adversity, often in unpleasant ways.

Another way Sigler has been smart with his second book is to take a page from cinema’s playbook.  Like second movies, where filmmakers often take the conflict of the first movie and both recast and amplify it (think Terminator 2; think The Dark Knight), Sigler develops his overarching storyline by extending the capability of the disease – it isn’t about more people discovering they have the disease, it’s about the disease mutating in reaction to what happened in the first book.  In Infected, the intelligence behind the disease placed all its money on Dawsey.  When that falls through, it goes to Plan B in Contagious, infecting a young girl named Chelsea, who responds to the mutated infection in potentially world-ending ways.  The story, then, becomes a race against time, as Phillips and his unexpected partner Dawsey attempt to track down Chelsea while the newly clear-eyed Montoya tries to work out a cure.  It’s a logical extension of the events of the first book, and it goes beyond just throwing more obstacles in the characters’ path, which is really all that Hollow City boils down to.  The movie influence comes across even more dramatically in the last fifty pages.  As the book rushes toward its conclusion, the chapters shorten to cut between the various characters.  The result is an almost palpable momentum, and it’s kind of exciting.

In Contagious, a lot happens and all of it matters.  It’s crucial for story and for character. Like The Empire Strikes Back, the events are vital for understanding the arc of the entire series, and also like that movie, the ending is so bleak it makes me wonder where the series will go next.  If Sigler’s writing is occasionally clunky – and it is, especially when his characters try to be clever and jokey; Elmore Leonard he isn’t – he compensates for it in mastery of plot and pacing.  Contagious manages to be both a self-contained story that stands on its own merits and a satisfying extension of the world Sigler created in Infected.


Current listening:

Echobelly everyone

Echobelly – Everyone’s Got One (1994)

I’ve Got it and it’s Not Worth Having

HollowIn Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to his hugely popular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a lot happens and nothing happens.  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say a lot happens and none of it matters.  It is, above all, a tale of high adventure, the titular odd kids fleeing across Wales to London, a fearsome posse of creatures called wights hot on their heels.  They encounter gypsies and talking dogs and survive Nazi bombs and kill many-tongued creepy-crawlies and it’s all irrelevant.  Because, see, this is the second book in a trilogy, and if there’s one thing that often marks second books, it’s that they’re placeholders.  The first book has to do a lot of heavy lifting what with all the exposition-establishing and character-introducing and world-building.  Miss Peregrine does this brilliantly, bringing us into the world of the peculiar through Jacob, a teenager who discovers time traveling “loops,” and in those loops he finds children with mysterious powers and teachers who shapeshift into birds.  There’s a Neil Gaiman-esque fairy tale quality to the first book, and the vintage photographs scattered throughout it help drag this story of the supernatural into the real world.  I think it’s kind of a stupendous feat.  Third books, by contrast, have purpose because they’re all about resolving conflicts and tying up loose ends.  They’re driving things home, so there’s usually a sense of momentum and intentionality.

But those second books.  They’re all about getting from Point A to Point C, which means Point B, in many ways, involves running in place.  That’s absolutely true of Hollow City.  It’s action-packed, but because the characters all end up more or less where they started – in crisis – there’s a weird stasis to the proceedings.  It’s action that mainly serves to maneuver the playing pieces where they need to be for the third book, so in some ways the plot of the second book doesn’t even matter.  The characters do some things and go some places and overcome some challenges, and, until the last twenty pages, none of it really amounts to anything.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining.  Quests, told well, will almost always be worth the read.  And the children certainly have a lot on their plate.  At the start of the book . . .

and these are spoilers, I guess, if you have yet to read the first book in the series

. . . Miss Peregrine, the headmistress and nominal matriarch for all these power-wielding children, has been rescued from the wights who kidnapped her, only she’s trapped in her bird form.  The children know they must find a way to help her regain her humanity, and that’s the quest the book is concerned with.  It takes them from Wales to London in 1940, and along the way they meet the talking dogs and gypsies and assorted other creatures – good and bad – that make up the spine of the book.  It’s never less than interesting, but I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Hollow City was just marking time.  Even though the wights and the creepy-crawlies (called hollowghasts) are a constant danger, it never really felt like anything was at stake, and because the challenges they faced were just hurdles to clear on their way to the book’s climax, nothing ever seemed particularly consequential.

Like I said, a lot of stuff happens, and none of it matters.

Until the end.  In the closing pages we get an important revelation about Miss Peregrine and, more importantly, Jacob discovers something about the nature of his own powers that promises exciting things for the third book.  But in a lot of ways it’s a case of too little too late.  I can’t complain that much about a book that was generally pretty entertaining, but it’s also sort of a bummer to feel like I just spent 400 pages on the literary equivalent of a treadmill.


Current listening:

Underworld second

Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)

Tired Angles Make New Shapes

Percy redWerewolves are kind of a snooze, right?  I mean, as far as monsters go, they’re not super exciting.  What are the great werewolf movies?  Lon Chaney’s eponymous Wolf Man got things started.  There’s The Howling, obviously, and Wolfen.  An American Werewolf in London (but not in Paris). Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves is stylish fun, and Neil Marshall’s Dog Soldiers is the best recent example. After that?  Do I dare mention Teen Wolf?  100 years of cinema, and the wolf man can manage only a measly six quality films.

I think this is because there’s not much to do with the wolf man story.  Unlike zombies,vampires, and ghosts, which, in skilled hands, can do a lot of allegorical heavy lifting, the werewolf is sort of trapped in the “innocent man struggles with the beast within” paradigm.  This is why movies like Wolf and Joe Johnston’s recent Benicio del Toro-starring The Wolfman are such inert belly flops.  It’s just a repackaged story told over and over again in largely similar ways.  I s’pose I could add Ginger Snaps to my first list for using the werewolf story as a metaphor for a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality (a phrase which I personally find more horrifying than any werewolf), but it’s otherwise tricky to break out of the established mold.

And are there any classic werewolf books?  I guess Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf comes close.  Beyond that, I’ve got nothing, although Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon comes close.  It’s a werewolf epic, in case you were wondering if such a thing were possible, spanning a period of several years in the lives of a deep cast of characters and, contradicting what I just wrote, actually doing something different with ye olde wolf man story.

The first thing I’ll say about it is I think Percy does a commendable job of world-building.  Red Moon‘s world is our world, with references to Rodney King and Wilco and Che Guevara and Star Wars, only werewolves – lycans, as they’re called in the book – are common knowledge.  Some live among us (the latest census lists the lycan population at 5.2%), taking Volpexx to prevent their transformation from human to wolf; others live in the Lupine Republic: the werewolf homeland, established in 1948, that lies between Russia and Finland.  Recently, despite this relatively peaceful coexistence, tensions between humans and lycans have risen, caused partially by politicians like Chase Marshall, a presidential candidate who exploits anti-lycan sentiment to his own gain (he wants to create a lycan registry – remind you of anyone?), and partially by the Resistance, a group of lycan rebels not afraid of resorting to violence to achieve parity for their race.  The U.S. military, in charge of keeping the peace in the Republic, doesn’t help things with its presence.

It’s pretty fun to see how Percy so effortlessly establishes this world and then sets it spinning.  I don’t use the word epic lightly.  The cast of major characters is extensive:

  • Patrick, a teenage boy (whose father is stationed in the Republic) who is the lone survivor of the lycan attack that sets the “official” lycan rebellion in motion
  • Claire, a teenage lycan on the run from a shadowy government office seeking to wipe out the lycan rebellion
  • Max, leader of an anti-lycan militia called The Americans
  • Miriam, ex-wife of a prominent figure in the lycan rebellion and Claire’s aunt
  • Jeremy, Miriam’s ex-husband
  • Chase, the previously mentioned presidential candidate with a secret of his own
  • Augustus, Chase’s aide-de-camp
  • Neal, a doctor seeking a vaccine for lobos, the prion disease that turns people into lycans

And on and on.  The book also takes place over the course of several years, so in the case of Patrick and Claire, especially, we watch them grow and adapt to the worsening tension between humans and lycans, which eventually takes on potentially world-ending characteristics.  It’s a werewolf story told on a large canvas, and, as I mentioned above, Percy doesn’t shy away from the metaphoric possibilities of his story.  There’s the anti-lycan politicians (which, in 2013, manage to predict Trump and Cruz and their anti-Muslim grandstanding) and the anti-lycan militia; the “closeted” lycans dealing with a stigmatizing disease that can be managed through regular medication; the U.S. military occupation of a foreign land; and the violent lycan minority that believes violence is the only way to achieve equality.  Rather than tread the well-worn path of other werewolf stories, Percy chooses not to focus on an individual but instead adopts the Robert Altman strategy and examines how different lives serve as individual threads of a much larger tapestry.

Most impressively of all, Percy brings a painterly touch to this epic, investing the action with moments of real beauty.  It’s a world where “soot-black clouds occasionally puls[e] with gold-wire lightning” and feet “make chewed-ice sounds along the shoulder,” where a girl is so pale it looks as though “she had been soaking for years in a bath of moonlight” and, in a moment of rare quiet, a tractor “trundl[es] along with a gray scarf of exhaust trailing behind it.”  Rather than just rush from set piece to set piece, Percy takes the time to let his story breathe.  It’s more well-written than it has any right to be.

I said above that Red Moon “comes close” to being  a classic book.  Like many books of its size, scope, and ambition, some plot threads remain unraveled.  It’s probably unfair of me to want satisfactory endings for every character, but at least one key figure’s story just sort of drops off the map, which seems particularly egregious considering the trials he puts her through earlier in the book.  And some conflicts are resolved too easily.  You can’t set up a pursuit between two characters spanning years and much of a continent and end it so anti-climactically, nor can you have one of the characters passing as one of the book’s antagonists wrap up his arc in flashback, offstage.  And yeah, while the resolution is admirably bleak (I do like me a downer of an ending), it’s so open-ended I can’t decide if Percy didn’t know how to wrap things up or if he’s planning a sequel.  I wanted more finality, which may be more a reflection of my selfishness than a true weakness of the book.

Red Moon is, minor complaints aside, an impressive achievement: an exceptionally well-written page-turner that has more on its mind than just giving the reader a good scare.


Current listening:

Four rounds

Four Tet – Rounds (2003)

One World Passport (Iceland, Part 5: Egilsstaðir to Húsavík via Mývatn)


If you’re going to book a 10-day trip to Iceland and you’ve never been there before, how do you decide where to stay?  I wish I had some great insight to share, but my grand strategy was basically to confine each day’s driving to about three hours.  This would give us plenty of time for our scheduled stops but also allow us the flexibility to explore – which is really the only reason we were able to have happy accidents like Fjaðrárgljúfur.  My highly scientific method, then, was simply to book rooms in decent-sized towns (remembering this is Iceland and what passes for “decent-sized” is much smaller than what passes for “decent-sized” in the States) roughly three hours apart.  This worked most of the time, with only two exceptions.  Egilsstaðir – probably the most underwhelming town we visited – was the first.

I shouldn’t be too harsh.  It’s perfectly fine for what it is: a picturesque town without much to do.  But it certainly didn’t have the dramatic vistas and geographic features of Vik or the road to Höfn.  (Actually, its main claim to fame is the Lagarfljót Worm, a mythical serpent that supposedly lives in the Lagarfljót River that runs through Egilsstaðir.  If the Worm is real, we didn’t see it.)  The town is, however, within driving distance of Seyðisfjörður, an isolated fishing community that’s supposedly one of the most beautiful spots in the Easfjords.  After a brief intermission to check in at our guest house, we hopped back in the trusty Auris and headed off the Ring Road to Seyðisfjörður.  We made a quick stop-off at Fardagafoss, one of those gorgeous spots just hanging out by the side of the road that Iceland might as well claim as its national speciality.


What we didn’t realize – because why do research? – is that to get to Seyðisfjörður we had to drive over the Fjarðarheiði mountain pass, which, even in July, is snow-swept and foggy.  The higher we drove, the worse the visibility, until we were poking along behind one other car into an impenetrable scrim of mist.


After white-knuckling my way over the pass for 45 minutes, we descended into Seyðisfjörður, which, as advertised, was certainly beautiful . . .


. . . but ultimately no more lively than Egilsstaðir.  Back in the car then and over the mountain to the guest house and an early night in.

IMG_0347In the morning, however, we were immediately ready to forgive Egilsstaðir when we discovered a tiny bakery tucked away toward the back of an auto mechanic’s.  It was nothing flashy – coffee and pastries – but I can safely say that all future pastry will be judged in comparison to what I ate that morning and undoubtedly be found wanting.  I remember discovering pain au chocolat on my first trip to France and thinking that was as good as it got.  This pastry makes the best pain au chocolat look like the last stale donut sitting in a gas station display case.  If heaven exists, it probably smells a lot like that bakery.

Fortified with sugar and caffeine we headed northwest – ultimately heading for Húsavík, our first two-night stop of the trip – with a few key sights to see.  The first was Dettifoss and Selfoss, two waterfalls located a short ten-minute walk apart but with very different personalities.  If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, you’ve seen Dettifoss.  Its reputation is that it’s the most powerful waterfall in Iceland, and I didn’t see anything to dispute that claim.  It’s so impressive that a photo tends to minimize its impact, so here’s a short video that does it more justice.  Stay tuned for my dopey reaction at the end.

Afterward, we wound our way through lava formations to Selfoss, another in Iceland’s long line of “Well, shit, that’s really unbelievable” vistas.


It’s pretty cool from a distance, but even more striking close up.


The one thing that we heard repeatedly about Iceland before the trip is that it had an abundance of waterfalls.  I remember thinking at one point, “Waterfalls?  Big deal.  At some point once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”  As it turns out, I’m a big dope.  We saw a dozen or more during our time in Iceland and they were always beautiful, always fascinating, and, most importantly, always different.  I used the word personalities above because it’s apt.  Whether they were well-marked tourist stops or just unnamed falls we stumbled across as we drove from place to place, it was pretty remarkable just how distinctive each one was.  Selfoss, for the record, is probably my second favorite, right behind Seljandsfoss, which we saw on Day 3.  You’ll be quizzed about this later.

After Dettifoss and Selfoss, it was time to head toward Lake Mývatn, with a quick stop at Krafla Crater on the way.


The geothermal activity in Iceland is everywhere, and the area around Mývatn is especially known for it.  There are baths (not unlike the Blue Lagoon from Day 1) at the lake itself, and on the drive up to Krafla you pass a massive geothermal power plant.  There are also the mud pots at Hefrir.  It can be easy to forget just how volcanic Iceland is.  Until you’re there.  Then it’s inescapable.


Evidence of a different sort could be found in the lava fields at Dimmuborgir.  We sampled only a very small part of this area; there were miles of trails winding through the formations, but with an hour or more to Húsavík, we very selectively hiked one of the smaller loops.



Lake Mývatn itself is, surprisingly, not very photogenic (or at least we didn’t make it to the photogenic part because, again, no advance research), but the drive to Húsavík more than made up for it.  This part of the trip took us off the paved Ring Road and onto an unpaved secondary road, where the landscape opened wide in front of us, granting spectacular views of the mountains to the west.


Húsavík itself was my favorite stop of the trip.  It had a different character from the fishing villages of the Eastfjords, due maybe in part to its reputation as a prime whale watching spot.  So in addition to its quaintly beautiful scenery . . .




. . . there was also a surprisingly high-quality whale museum (describing all things Cetacea, including whale physiology and the Icelandic whaling industry), a museum devoted to Iceland’s history of exploration (including when the U.S. space program conducted training missions there in the mid 1960s), and several restaurants and pubs that did booming business in the evening.

puffinIt was at one of these, Salka, that I guiltily indulged my culinary interest in trying puffin.  I know, I know.  They’re arguably one of the cutest birds in the world.  Only someone without a moral compass would feast on something so adorable.  Does it help for you to know puffin are as common in Iceland as chickens are in the States?  No?  Well, then, I recommend you stop reading now, because you’re surely not going to like what comes next.

How is puffin prepared?  Like this.

IMG_0352 (1)


What does it look like when someone is eating puffin?  Like this.


I wish I could tell you it was horrible, that I was karmically repaid with a sour aftertaste and an evening of gastrointestinal distress.  I wish I could tell you that.  But it was actually delicious.  It was smoked (and accompanied by a horseradish purée), and it tasted like a heavier pastrami – surprisingly more like beef or venison than chicken or duck.  If it makes you feel any better, I also ate horse in Paris and kangaroo in Sydney, so at least I’m an equal-opportunity eater of cute things.

With the prospect of an early-morning whale-watching trip greeting us the next day, it was back to our guest house to rest up and prepare to head to the high seas.

Up next: Blue whale to starboard!



Current listening:

Feelies here

The Feelies Here Before (2011)

Listening Post (Lullaby for the Working Class Edition)

Lullaby i

I have distinct memories of autumn in Ohio. The smell of woodsmoke rising from chimneys. Desiccated cornstalks ground into the soil beneath tractor tires. Early-morning grass rimed with frost. Crows lining a telephone wire against a gunmetal sky. I haven’t lived there for years, but Lullaby for the Working Class’ second album, I Never Even Asked for Light, is the sound of that time. Even though I was 24 and living in California when it was released in 1997, my very first listen distinctly took me back to my youth, a 12-year-old kid waiting for the bus on a November morning, breath pluming from his mouth in the chill. It’s playing in the background as I write this, and it hasn’t lost any of its power.

The album also clearly induces pretentiousness in those susceptible to it.

LFTWC has a foot in a couple different camps. Band member Mike Mogis is a co-founder of Saddle Creek Records, so on the one hand they’re part of the Nebraska scene that also gave us (among others) Bright Eyes and Cursive. Musically, there are some superficial similarities with the mid-90’s alt-country movement (hey, guys! banjos!), so it’s reasonable to lump them in with bands like Uncle Tupelo (and Son Volt and early Wilco), the Jayhawks, and Sixteen Horsepower (although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to also compare them to chamber pop acts like Tindersticks and Lambchop). For whatever reason, I Never Even Asked for Light hit me harder than most anything recorded by any of those other bands. Even after Wilco started cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece, this album works for me on an emotional level that I can’t really explain.

It starts out with an inauspicious untitled track – just guitar, Ted Stevens’ tenor, and the sound of wind in the trees and chirping birds. As the song fades, the sound of birds suddenly gives way to the joyful mandolin of “Show Me How the Robots Dance.”

One lyric in this song stands out as a theme for the album: “I doubt there’s a body of water/Big enough to quench our thirst.” From the mourners “holding [their] drinks like wrecked statues” in the beautiful, brass-laced “Irish Wake” to the shipwrecked son in “Hypnotist” to the rafting narrator in the trilogy “The Man Vs. the Tide,” lyricist Stevens uses a recurring motif of water and thirst throughout many of the songs. It’s an album that seems to be about dissatisfaction, about wanting more than we can ever have, and as a result, it’s an album that’s decidedly mournful.

Mournful, but never bleak. The lush tapestry of instruments (banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, glockenspiel, organ, among others) makes even a song like “In Honor of My Stumbling” feel hopeful, despite its central metaphor: “Faith is a candle in direct sunlight.” And where this kind of Americana often begins to feel a little samey to me, LFTWC dodge that particular bullet by experimenting with different tempos, from the slow and stately “Bread Crumbs” to the pulsing, insistent “Hypnotist.” The centerpiece, though, is “The Man Vs. the Tide,” the three-part song that closes the album. Its sparse instrumentation – horns giving way to strings giving way to just Stevens’ voice and guitar – blends fluidly with the gentle crash of waves and the distant roar of an airplane as Stevens gently sings, “Will I ever attain/This blue sky?” The ambient sounds that bookend the album underscore its autumnal beauty and resonate even after the song ends.

Next steps: Three albums, and the band was done. I also really like their debut, Blanket Warm, but I never found their last release, Song, particularly compelling. Mogis of course went on to do all kinds of stuff with Bright Eyes and Monsters of Folk, and singer Ted Stevens is still a member of Cursive.

When the Sun Hits

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIs there any child actor in recent memory who’s so completely lived up to her potential as Saoirse Ronan? Ever since her arrival at age 13 in 2007’s Atonement, she’s been never less than fantastic in every movie in which she’s appeared, lifting even pedestrian hooey like the Stephanie Meyer adaptation The Host into the realm of the watchable. Most importantly, though, she’s had an unerring eye for quality projects, appearing in prestige films (The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Lovely Bones), small movies from well-respected directors (Peter Weir’s The Way Back; Neil Jordan’s Byzantium), and entertaining experiments (Hanna; Violet & Daisy). Brooklyn is just the latest in her line of successes, and it’s easily one of the best movies of 2015.

The weird thing about Brooklyn, though, is that it’s one of those movies that works really well even though I’m hard-pressed to explain why. On paper, the story – young girl from rural Ireland emigrates to the U.S. and falls in love with an Italian guy despite the pull of home – isn’t particularly compelling, Nick Hornby’s dialogue isn’t especially showy, and John Crowley directs with sensitivity but with no more bells and whistles than the story requires (which is to say none at all). So most of the things that usually draw me to a movie were absent from Brooklyn.

brooklyn stillWhat it comes down to, really, is the appeal of Ronan’s Eilis, who’s sweet and kind even when suffering with an eminently relatable bout of homesickness, and her Italian beau, Tony, who falls juuuussssst on the tolerable side of “aw shucks” sappiness. They’re a couple that’s easy to root for, especially when Eilis is called back to Ireland and finds herself struggling with a variety of pressures that threaten to keep her away from Tony, and America, forever. Eilis’ ache is palpable, knowing what she’s left behind in America but feeling the inexorable pull that the easy comfort of home usually has. It’s to Ronan’s credit that this is a real dilemma – we buy into the push/pull she feels even though by this point we’re fully on board with her new life in the big city. It’s a sophisticated, nuanced performance that never takes the easy way out, and it confirms that Ronan will be worth watching for decades.

Add in a vibrant cast of supporting characters (the tenants and owner of Eilis’ New York boarding house; Tony’s family; a friendly Irish priest played by the reliably excellent Jim Broadbent) and Brooklyn is a huge smothering bear hug of a movie, the cinematic equivalent of slipping into a warm bath or sipping a mug of cocoa while snow gently drifts from the sky. It’s a movie to make you feel good – nothing fancy, just a simple story well told by people who know exactly what they’re doing.


Current listening:

Afghan black

The Afghan Whigs – Black Love (1996)