Adventures in Dementia

sleeeping-while-drinking-coffee

Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

Advertisements

A Tried and Tested Method

War alexieEver find you really like a book but don’t have much to say about it?  So it is with Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.  It is, in typical Alexie fashion, a gracefully written collection of short stories and poems that manages to be insightful not just about what it means to be Native American in the 21st Century, but how personal identity is a profoundly unreliable thing that nevertheless greatly influences the way we get by in the world.  Each piece is – if I can use such a word without fear of ridicule – delightful, even when they tackle questions of racism, homophobia, marital dissolution, and dementia.  Some of my speechlessness is due to my short story overdose in 2008; the rest of it is feeling like sometimes it’s enough just to say, “Yeah, that was pretty good,” and not belabor the point.

So rather than wrestle with finding my way in to another lengthy screed, here’s a quick snapshot of three of my favorite stories in the collection, and I’ll close with a brief personal story about Alexie.

“Breaking and Entering.” George is home alone when he hears someone shatter a window in his basement.  He descends the stairs to find a black teenager rifling through his possessions.  George casually, almost thoughtlessly, picks up his son’s aluminum Little League bat, more for protection than aggression.  When the teenager attempts to bolt past him for the door, George swings the bat, catching the thief in the temple and killing him instantly – and totally accidentally.  George is pilloried by the African-American community as another in a long line of white men responsible for the death of a black youth.  The catch, though, is that George is Native American.  Alexie never tips his hand about this fact too early, and once he’s made the big reveal, spends the rest of the story reflecting on the nature of power.  Is it possible for a story to be even more relevant years after it was written?  Recent events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and elsewhere make it unfortunately so.

“The Senator’s Son.” William, the son of a remarkably (and atypically) progressive Republican senator, is involved in a hate crime, taking part in an attack on three gay men late at night.  It turns out that one of the victims is William’s former best friend, a fellow Young Republican who came out to him in high school.  Provocative (and resonant) not just for what it tells us about the lengths people are willing to go to in order to protect their reputations, but also for William’s acknowledgement that, yes, homosexuality is biologically hard-wired into some people, but hatred might be just as inescapable for others.

“Fearful Symmetry.” A marginal writer gets his shot at the Hollywood big time when he’s hired to write a screenplay adapting a book about a firefighter.  He fails miserably, suffers an existential crisis, quits writing altogether, takes up competitive crossword-puzzle-solving, and finds redemption in lying to strangers.  It’s the lightest story of the bunch – a breezy read that still manages to say some important things about recognizing one’s place in the world.

For the uninitiated, War Dances is a quality entry point into Alexie’s world, an award-winning collection that doesn’t overstay its welcome while still giving the reader plenty to chew on.

And now the personal story.  I’ve been a fan of Alexie’s since the late 90s, coming to him first through the movie Smoke Signals, and more recently through his spectacular Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When I heard he’d be doing a book signing at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference a few years ago, I set aside other obligations to make sure I was there.

When I got up to the table, the man was kind and generous, making each person feel noticed and appreciated despite the long queue that had already shuffled past and which still wound through the exhibition hall behind me.  Alexie signed a couple books for me, and I asked him if I could get a photo with him.

His response: “Can we take it like we’re at the prom?”

What was I going to say?

Rob Aexie

*****

Current listening:

Urusei we

Urusei Yatsura – We Are Urusei Yatsura (1996)

Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)

I Found That Essence Rare

YAL

When I was a teenager – and even, if I’m going to be honest, into my early 20’s – I was an angsty little dude.  It usually had to do with girls and my inability to date them, and I cloaked myself in self-righteous misery.  Imbued with the solipsism of the young, I knew no one else at my high school – those backwards, cow-town knuckle-draggers, as I viewed them at the time – understood my pain, and so I’d lose myself in music.  Morrissey knew what I was going through.  My awkwardness and self-loathing felt right at home on Joy Division’s icy tundra or in the sonic architecture of The Cure’s Disintegration.  I felt harmonic convergence with Elvis Costello’s bile in “I Want You” and Paul Westerberg’s raw anguish in the Replacements’ “Answering Machine.”  It was comforting, reassuring, to feel like I wasn’t alone.  When I needed an escape, all I had to do was put on my headphones and let my friends sing to me.

But of course I wasn’t alone.  What I was feeling wasn’t singular to me.  It wasn’t even special or unusual.  Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and looking in the rearview mirror it’s plain that I was suffering from nothing more serious than adolescence.  But at the time it was weighty, momentous – the fate of the world was held in the answer to the question, “Do you want to go to the movies with me this weekend?”  And to ease this suffering, we want to know that someone out there understands us.

I found comfort in music.  Increasingly, today’s teenagers find it in the pages of Young Adult Literature (YAL), which is in the middle of something resembling a golden age.  I keep up with it as well as I can as part of my professional responsibility, and the quality has never been higher.  Sure, there’s purely escapist nonsense like the Twilight series (and just about anything else categorized under the giggle-inducing “Teen Paranormal Romance” section of your local Barnes & Noble), but man, the best of the best holds its own with – and sometimes even exceeds – the quality of so-called “adult” fiction. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (to name just three recent favorites) tackle serious issues (cancer, mental illness, and racial bias, respectively) with sensitivity and sophistication that can be appreciated by readers who haven’t seen adolescence in quite a while.  Like, ahem, yours truly.

I bring up the issue of content – and these three books in particular – for a couple reasons. One is, as I described at the beginning, the importance of seeing yourself in art.  Just as it was infinitely reassuring to hear Morrissey sing, “I am human and I need to be loved/Just like everybody else does,” I think I would have immediately been drawn to It’s Kind of a Funny Story (had it been written in 1988) and its thoughtful depiction of a teen dealing with depression and anxiety.  Similarly, for teens dealing with physical illness, The Fault in Our Stars treats its cancer-afflicted main characters with dignity, respect, and humor, and Alexie’s Part-Time Indian is a powerful (and powerfully funny) account of growing up as the Other, torn between two cultures who seek to hold you back in different ways.  This is what the best of YAL does: It holds up a mirror to the reader, letting him know he’s not alone and giving him the tools to survive.

But the mirror can also be flipped around to reflect the outside world to someone unfamiliar with it.  Growing up in small-town Ohio, at a school whose demographics skewed nearly 100% white, Alexie’s book would have been just as much a revelation to me then as it is to the small-town Georgia teens who populate the schools around me now.  With its accessible language and relatable characters, YAL can do immense good in helping younger readers broaden their horizons and deepen their empathy.

But of course some people just don’t get it.  What prompted me to write this post was discovering this article from England’s Daily Mail, which completely mischaracterizes YAL as “sick lit” that morbidly traffics in human misery, apparently for the purpose of exploitation and book sales.  Or, as the author herself states, “Since the vampire book bubble burst, publishers have been looking to find the next big thing in the lucrative world of young adult fiction.”  That’s right, folks: cancer sells, dont’cha know.

I’ve had a problem with this kind of reporting from critics before.  It’s the same kind of blinkered, short-sighted ignorance that led many respected movie critics (including my beloved Roger Ebert) to heap praises on the film Waiting for Superman, despite the fact that it’s a thinly-veiled propaganda piece (funded in part by the Gates Foundation) attacking public schools in favor of private charters.  The critics reviewed it as a movie without fully (or even partially) understanding how it plays into the current debate about education reform.  So they bought the movie’s bogus thesis that there’s an education crisis and promoted the movie in their reviews as a solution to the fabricated problem.

The same thing happens in Carey’s article about YAL.  Instead of exploring the mountain of research that discusses the benefits of YAL for readers of all kinds, Carey instead calls on “children’s book expert” Amanda Craig, who says authors have “a moral and social responsibility” when they write for children, and books about illness, suicide, depression, etc., shirk that responsibility.  The implication is that the books are exploitative (she specifically singles out Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why), using serious issues like depression, illness, and suicide as cheap plot devices to sell books.  

Which is absolute nonsense.

Roger Ebert (if I can mention him again for just a moment) wrote something that has often guided my response to both books and movies, and I’m paraphrasing: “A movie isn’t what it’s about.  It’s how it is about it.”  Of course a book about teen cancer can be exploitative. But to say all books about teen cancer are exploitative is to completely ignore just how nimbly, sensitively, and respectfully Green writes about it.  Vizzini doesn’t cheapen teen depression by writing about it, nor does Alexie sensationalize racial prejudice.  In talking to other people who have read these books (and other YAL like them) the reaction isn’t, “Cool cancer book, yo.”  It’s more like, “This really helped me to understand what people endure when they suffer from cancer [depression/prejudice] as a teen.”  The books have an impact not because they titillate, but because the best of them have important things to say about life with all its challenges.

It’s tempting, I think, for adults to want teens only to read sugar-coated tales where the most serious adversity is forgotten lunch money.  But teens face ever more serious challenges, and YAL is just one way of helping them negotiate this minefield.  To ignore the way literature can be a place of solace seems to me to be an even bigger avoidance of moral and social responsibility than to write a book that helps teens find comfort in their – and our – imperfect lives.

*****
Current listening:
Low curtain
Low – The Curtain Hits the Cast (1996)