Wednesday, July 20, 2011

All was well

            I just finished reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” again and while normally I would sit down and write a review of it, for a book like this I just can’t.  Even if I could ignore all my nostalgia for the book and concentrate on it’s quality it would be pointless since either you’ve enjoyed the Harry Potter series enough to read the final installment or you’re a naysayer who never made it past book two.  Instead, here is my humble attempt at a tribute.

            I am a Harry Potter fan.  There are very few readers my age who aren’t.  Though the Harry Potter series has been touted as children’s books that were able to break free from their target audience and appeal to a wide range of ages, it can’t be denied there is also a very generational aspect to their popularity.  Though I’m far from the biggest fan (as my conspicuously Harry Potter paraphernalia free room can attest to) I grew up with Harry, Hermione, Hogwarts, and everything else in the series.

            To the best of my memory I was first exposed to the series when the first and second books were given to me as a gift during the Christmas of 1999.  Next to a super awesome metal slinky one of my friends gave me for my seventeenth birthday, they're the best gifts I’ve ever received.  The books were beyond my reading level at the time, so I sat down with my family while my dad read them out loud.  It was a tradition we would keep all the way until the last one was released in 2007.

            From the start I absolutely loved them.  At the risk of sounding like a hipster, I’ll admit that this was before they had been commercialized and there was no merchandise for them to be found, so with special paper, a printer and an iron, I made my own shirt emblazoned with the cover of “The Chamber of Secrets.”  I wore it with pride.

            I remember going to the book releases.  One came out on the morning before a road trip, another one released while I was sitting in a Peruvian airport and I bought the sixth one while in Canada so now it looks shrunken and out of place, squeezed between the massive American editions. 

            As for the movies, though never quite as enchanting as the books, were still thrilling parts of my childhood.  That’s why, as I laughed with my friends last Thursday night while waiting for the clock to hit 12, I couldn’t help feeling a bit of sorrow, because I knew a prolonged episode in my life was ending.  Feel free to call that notion ridiculous.  Feel free to scoff at my attachment to a fictional world.  But when it comes down to it, the magic of the Harry Potter series isn’t in its spells or potions but in the knowledge that however horribly wrong things in real life go there is always a world I can close my eyes and return to that feels like home.

            For me, mischief will never truly be managed and for that, I’m glad.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays "Grab on to me Tightly as if I Knew the Way"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This book has some of the best prose I've ever read and unfortunately two sentences doesn't do it anywhere near justice.  The review I'll be posting in a few days will likely include more quotes, but for now I suppose a small taste of a book filled with memorable lines won't hurt.

"So we go to bed not knowing and wake up not knowing and from dream to dream everything goes wrong.  Someone's sculpting my ice-block heart with a chainsaw." --"Grab on to Me Tightly as if I Knew the Way" by Bryan Charles

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Monster, 1959

            I mentioned picking books up on whim in my last review and I guess I just must be in a whimsical mood because “Monster, 1959” by David Maine is another book I read despite knowing nothing about it beforehand.  The basic plot of the book is very well worn monster movie fair.  It starts out with a monster called K living relatively peacefully away from civilization until a group of Americans come to the island and K takes the book’s token “damsel in distress,” Betty.  Her gallant husband, Johnny, along with a group of big game hunters, try to save her leading to plenty of action, the capture of K, and the decision to bring the K to the U.S. (you don’t have to a connoisseur of campy monster movies to know that this move only leads to more disaster).

            Fortunately this flimsy plot doesn’t take itself too seriously and instead works as a vehicle for a few other themes.  In one sense “Monster, 1959” is a tribute to mid twentieth century monster movies.  There’s a bit of tongue and cheek humor, several very unsubtle allusions to movies of the era, and, my personal favorite, the fleshing out of the stereotypical movie characters.  Brave Johnny is addicted to peril to a fault, beautiful and danger prone Betty is actually rather resourceful (though not resourceful enough to save herself), and even the comical 7 foot tall circus clown has his demons.  Maine’s effort to show the other side of these typically one-dimensional characters is interesting but in the end adding one more trait to a very tired character archetype still doesn’t make them any more interesting.  Even the examination of K’s psyche, which seems to have some promise, turns out to be dull and repetitive.

            There are also, surprisingly enough, some very political messages at play within the book.  These messages flit in and out of the narrative both abruptly and infrequently and only occasionally does the author openly mix the story and portrait of the United States he’s painting.  When Maine does this, however, it results in some of the best passages of the book. (WARNING: Spoiler in quote. Granted, the story is so predictable it wouldn’t be hard to guess something like this would take place)
 “The statue [of Liberty], severely foreshortened, looms above them like a Calder mobile.  Like a graven idol: something to worship, to pray to, to die or kill for.  In which case K.’s unexpected figure, squatting atop it, is—a blasphemy? An intrusion? A joke? A logical endpoint?”
 Maine’s story is one really of injustice, which covers everything from the treatment of K to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment to commentary on Hydrogen bomb testing.  When he takes a break from the narrative and concentrates on these issues you can see a hint of genius shining through.

            The problem is the rare hint of genius is the best the book has to offer.  Neither the message nor the humor nor the fleshed out characters can overcome the clunky story.  The cliché narrative is both part of the joke and the central meaning of the book but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read.  Many books have covered the same territory far more adeptly and engagingly making there little reason to read “Monster, 1959.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays "The Enchantress of Florence"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
"He would die without telling his story. He found this thought intolerable and so it refused to leave him, it crawled in and out of his ears, slid into the corners of his eyes and stuck to the roof of his mouth and to the soft tissue under his tongue." --"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

Survival Rates

            Occasionally I choose a book purely on whim.  I’ve never heard of the book or the author before and decide to gamble seven dollars or so on this unknown entity.  I find it refreshing to stumble into a book completely free from expectations and biases with only the information the back cover supplies. Of course, I usually quickly shatter this state by looking it up online about ten pages into the book, but that is beside the point.  I’ve found some great books this way that I otherwise wouldn’t have touched and it’s a practice that I have no intention of giving up anytime soon.

            What I don’t like to mention is that while this method has uncovered some true gems, it is also a very effective way of finding absolutely disastrous books. Both fortunately and unfortunately, Mary Clyde’s short story collection “Survival Rates” falls into neither of these categories.  The Flannery O’Connor award winner is, in my opinion, just okay.

            The nine stories contained within the volume, though each different enough to avoid sounding repetitive, have some definite similarities with each other.  Among the most noticeable is the concentration on the aftermath.  Whether it is coping with a diagnosis or recovering from a breakup each piece gives a glimpse into one, or often several, people’s reactions.  The greatest downfall of the collection is most of the time it is just merely a glimpse and not fully a story.  There is nothing wrong with not having a traditional story arc but by about the fourth story in it begins to seem like this tendency is less of a device and more of a crutch.

            The other main thread in the collection is the southwestern U.S. setting.  There is one set in southern California, another in Utah, but most of the stories with a specified location take place in Phoenix, Arizona or one of its suburbs.  Normally I’m all for a southwest setting seeing as it tends to be woefully unused in literature, but Clyde’s depiction of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not that Clyde misrepresents the area; it’s quite the opposite.  The author clearly knows the area very well but for some odd reason seems bent on showing the reader how much of an expert she is by throwing in oddly specific place names.  This is something that can be done acceptably when the story is set in a major city like New York or London but for a place like Phoenix, as large as it might be, the place is really an unknown to people who have never lived there.  I suppose it could be argued Clyde is trying to educate the readers about the city but these efforts occasionally come at the expense of the stories’ clarity.  Because really, how many people who aren’t also intimate with area will know that Smitties is a grocery store or understand all that is implied when a character is described as dressed in clothes from “Biltmore Fashion Park.”

            Despite these complaints “Survival Rates” is by no means a bad collection.  “Victor’s Funeral Urn,” “Pruitt Love,” and “Jumping” are my personal favorites but most of the others in the collection are quite good also.  Each of the stories hover on the edge of greatness and it makes me wish to see another collection by Clyde with her story telling skills better honed.  Seeing as it has been twelve years since the release of her first and only collection this may be the only of her writings the world ever receives which would be a shame because she’s not bad; not bad at all.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Franny and Zooey

            “Franny and Zooey” is a book by J.D. Salinger and like all books by Salinger, besides his most famous, can’t be discussed without first establishing the speakers opinion of “The Catcher in the Rye.”  As unfortunate as it is that none of Salinger’s other works can seem to escape Holden’s angst riddled little tale, it’s best to get the elephant out of the room as soon as possible.  I seem to be one of the few people who doesn’t have a strong opinion either way on “The Catcher in the Rye.” I didn’t find Holden annoying, as many other contemporary readers seem to have felt, and generally enjoyed the read, but at the same time the book was not life changing or even made a lasting effect on me as rabid fans claim to have experienced.  Never the less, when one of my friends saw me reading “The Catcher in the Rye” and suggested I should also try “Franny and Zooey” I decided to follow her advice.

            “Franny and Zooey” is about the two youngest members of the Glass family: a fictional family that much of Salinger’s canon concerns, though my only previous encounters with them was through the couple mentions they receive in “Nine Stories.”  The book is in two parts.  The first part is the lead up to Franny’s breakdown and the second is the aftermath told largely through Zooey’s conversations with his mother and Franny.

            The novel has several themes.  Similar to “The Catcher in the Rye” disillusionment with the world and the people who inhabit it plays a large part, but in “Franny and Zooey” the characters are older and their reaction is more mature.  The suicide of the siblings’ eldest brother, Seymour, though it occurred years before the novel’s events, is a definite force in the book making the reader question if the character having a breakdown is really the one in the most distress.  Religion, however, is the most dominant theme.  Salinger, a man who was born Jewish Catholic and went on to practice everything from Hinduism to Scientology in his adult life (more about that here), was known for his ever changing beliefs which are very clearly reflected in this novel.  A pretty strong case could be made that “Franny and Zooey” is actually religious fiction but simply slapping on a label like that wouldn’t do this book justice.

            Salinger’s books get called a lot of things from pretentious to grating, but it can’t be denied that he is a fantastic writer.  His ability to completely change voice, the importance he places in details and his knack for weaving humor and heartbreak together so tightly they can’t be separated, really makes his stories a joy to read.  Despite this, it’s true “Franny and Zooey” isn’t for everyone. The slow pacing and tendency to shy a bit too much towards the oblique side of the spectrum may infuriate some readers, but for people who aren’t bothered by those tendencies, even those who didn’t like “The Catcher in the Rye,” will find a richly rewarding book well worth the time it takes to read its scant 200 pages.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Teaser Tuesdays "Survival Rates"

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
 "He thinks the mountains seem close today, particularly inhospitable in the noon light.  The olive green of the saguaros reminds him of a tank's armor, and there's a glare that makes him feel thirsty." --"Survival Rates" by Mary Clyde

Monday, July 4, 2011

Going After Cacciato

            Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato,” like many of his other books including his most famous novel “The Things They Carried,” takes place to the backdrop of the Vietnam War.   The book mixes main character Paul Berlin’s memories of the war with Berlin’s and fellow soldiers unreal trek to Paris in pursuit of a deserter, Cacciato.

            The book is far more than a straightforward story, however, so a simple plot summary doesn’t do it justice. The novel I would most readily compare it to is “Catch-22.” Perhaps it reveals how few war based novels I’ve read by being so ready to lump these two books together, but I feel there are some noticeable similarities beyond the theme of war.  Both make some use of chronologically jumbled flashbacks, have dark humor, and express dissatisfaction with war.  The manifestation of this dissatisfaction is where the two books diverge.  While in “Catch-22” Yossarian outright rejects the war and openly tries to escape it, the characters in “Going After Cacciato” are much less decisive.  They cling to the idea they are carrying out their mission of capturing Cacciato despite their march to find him gradually lapsing into tourism.  The lack of decision and definition is a reoccurring theme in this book.  Berlin straddles the line between desertion and mission refusing to commit to either.  Daydreams and reality rub shoulders increasing the confusion.   But confusion is the point: the confusion of the Vietnam War, the confusion of the era, perhaps even the confusion of youth.  In all this confusion the only thing that exists are possibilities but Berlin’s reluctance to capitalize on these give even what normally stand as hopeful beacons a gloom.

            Or maybe I’m just spouting meaningless drivel.  Regardless, I enjoyed “Going After Cacciato.”  It’s the type of book you can examine and reexamine but doesn’t sacrifice an engaging narrative either.  The picture of soldiers on the front cover might scare some potential readers away but even those, like myself, who aren’t war buffs should give this novel a try, because after all, as the mysteriously unaccredited quote on the back of the book said, “To call ‘Going After Cacciato’ a novel about war is like calling ‘Moby-Dick’ a novel about whales.”