A little girl gets lost alone in the woods. But for better or worse, no one is ever really alone…

The world had teeth and it could bite you with them any time it wanted. Trisha McFarland discovered that when she was nine years old.

Sounds like Cujo, doesn’t it? Sometimes bad things happen and it’s nobody’s fault, just the way of the world. Sometimes all the courage and willpower in the world isn’t enough to save you.

And sometimes it is.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon

Along with the Dark Tower series, this unique little book was my favorite of the new-to-me King books I read this year. While it has a lot of aspects that I like about King in addition to tropes I like in general, it’s different from his other books I’ve read (much pithier, for one thing) and a bit sui generis overall.

If you read survival memoirs, you’ll notice that many real people who got lost in the wild, in addition to their suffering and fear and physical breakdown, also had some kind of transcendent or spiritual experience. In between periods of misery and despair, they came to understand themselves, the natural world, and some kind of greater force in a way which felt deeply and lastingly important to them, though many say that no attempt at description can convey what it was really like. King delves into this phenomenon, giving the book an atmosphere at once delicate and powerful, full of realistic and suspenseful wilderness details balanced with a satisfyingly ambiguous exploration of that which is inherently unknowable and indescribable.

Nine-year-old Trisha goes with her mother and older brother for a short hike on the Appalachian Trail. When she steps off the path for a pee break, she realizes that she’s fallen behind and tries to take a short cut to catch up with them. One easy-to-make mistake leads to another, and Trisha is soon lost in the woods. Very, very lost.

That’s the entire book: the extraordinary journey of an ordinary girl. But Trisha is extraordinary too, in the way that anyone may become if they hit the exact right— or wrong— circumstances to bring out their full potential, whether to do right or wrong or simply endure.

If you’ve been following my King reviews and thinking, “Man, these books sound interesting, but so dark! Does he ever write anything that wouldn’t traumatize me if I read it?” Unless you’re very sensitive to children in danger, this could be the one.

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is way more emotionally realistic (and so harrowing) than something like Hatchet, but it’s more like that than it is like Carrie, and it’s a lot less traumatizing, to me anyway, than Julie of the Wolves. (No rape, no deaths of sympathic animals.) It’s a character and theme-driven adventure/survival novel with ambiguous fantasy elements and some scary moments, not a horror novel. There’s some snippets of Trisha’s family freaking out, but they get little page time. Trisha suffers, but she’s also very resilient. [If you just want to know if she survives, rot13.com for the answer: Vg’f n pybfr pnyy ohg fur qbrf, naq irel gevhzcunagyl ng gung.]

Trisha has no special woodsy knowledge. Brian from Hatchet she’s not. Very unusually for a wilderness survival novel with a child hero, Trisha doesn’t do anything that a smart and resourceful but untrained kid couldn’t plausibly have done. The average kid wouldn’t have survived as long as she did, but that’s just statistics. She doesn’t build her own snowshoes, start fires with flint, befriend wolves, or trap rabbits. She eats stuff she finds, she makes a primitive lean-to from fallen branches, and she walks. And walks. No matter how bad things get, she doesn’t stop.

She does it all with nothing but a little bit of food and water, plus her Walkman, which picks up the broadcast of a Red Sox game in which her favorite baseball player, Tom Gordon, is playing. As she gets more and more lost, and is forced to reach deeper and deeper into her mind and body and soul to survive, she calls upon others to help her out: her memories of her family and her parentally disapproved-of friend Pepsi Robichaud, who could only be considered a bad influence if you’re nine and sheltered, her crush and idol Tom Gordon, and various conceptions of God or Godlike forces.

As time goes on, Tom Gordon becomes Trisha’s imaginary companion, becoming more and more of a presence as she goes from simply needing him more to outright hallucinating from hunger and illness. So another of King’s perennial themes comes into play, the relationship of the fan to the fan-object, and how real and important it can be, for better or worse. (You do not need to know or care about baseball to read this book. I don’t. Technical details are minimal, and King tells you everything you need to know.)

But there are other things in the woods which Trisha didn’t call, except in the sense that she attracted them by being there and vulnerable. Maybe it’s whatever animal predator happens to be around. Maybe it’s a specific animal that’s tracking her. Or maybe it’s supernatural. This part of the story is exceptionally well-done and comes to a very satisfying conclusion.

Back to God, King’s perennial question of “Does he exist and if so, where is he and why does he let bad things happen?” is prominent in this book. While lost, Trisha considers and possibly encounters multiple concepts of God. One is the mainstream idea of an interventionist God, whom Tom Gordon petitions with a gesture during games; if that God answers an athlete’s prayers to win, will He answer Trisha’s to live? Another is the Subaudible, which Trisha’s father explained to her when she asked him if he believed in God:

"It had electric heat, that house. Do you remember how the baseboard units would hum, even when they weren't heating? Even in the summer?"

Trisha had shaken her head.

"That's because you got used to it, but take my word, Trish, that sound was always there. Even in a house where there aren't any baseboard heaters, there are noises. The fridges goes on and off. The pipes thunk. The floors creak. The traffic goes by outside. We hear those things all the time, so most of the time we don't hear them at all. They become... Subaudible.

“I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die— I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created— but I believe there has to be something.

“Yeah, something. Some kind of insensate force for the good.

“I think there's a force that keeps drunken teenagers— most drunken teenagers—
from crashing their cars when they're coming home from the senior prom or their first big rock concert. That keeps most planes from crashing even when something goes wrong. Not all, just most. Hey, the fact that no one's used a nuclear weapon on actual living people since 1945 suggests there has to be something on our side."

Much of the book interrogates the idea of a Subaudible, particularly the question of just how conscious it is and if we're our own Subaudible. It also introduces the idea that the Subaudible may have a less benevolent counterpart. This is the God of the Lost, which may be the thing (if there is a thing) stalking Trisha through the woods. If so, is it malevolent or simply dangerous? Is it another insensate force, or conscious and concrete?

What will determine Trisha’s fate? God and the Devil? The Subaudible and the God of the Lost? No supernatural forces at all, just human beings and nature and Trisha herself? Or some combination of those?

I normally find religion the most boring topic on Earth. I did not find it boring in this book. It comes up naturally, and it’s in the form of open questions rather than preaching. I excerpted the part about the Subaudible because it’s easier to quote than to summarize, not because it’s presented as the One Truth.

The prose, which swings easily from King’s usual not-quite-stream-of-consciousness interspersed with bits of omniscient narration to some passages of striking beauty, doesn’t try to imitate a child’s speech. But though the language is adult, the content of Trisha’s inner world did mostly feel convicingly nine-year-old. That’s an age when many kids are thinking about God and why bad things happen. I’ve had children that age talk to me unprompted about those issues in simple language but using pretty sophisticated ideas. The Subaudible isn’t Trisha’s idea, it’s her father’s, but I believed that once he told her about it, she’d keep on chewing over it.

Cut for spoilers. I would not read these if you might read the book; they spoil the climax, which is quite beautifully orchestrated. Read more... )
Note: I critiqued this novel in manuscript; the finished version differs from the one I originally read. My review is of the rewritten novel, not the original.

“This is the real damage of addiction. It turns you into a bad metaphor for yourself.”

Amends is a satirical mainstream literary novel about an ill-conceived reality TV show about a group of misfits in rehab. The characters were selected for an unholy combination of freak-show appeal and a TV producer’s ideas of diversity and likability, which bear about the same resemblance to the real world’s version of those qualities that reality TV bears to reality, which is to say an unsettling mixture of almost none with, occasionally, a surprising amount, Reality and real emotions seethe beneath the glossy surface, sometimes coaxed to come out and put on a show (and thus rendering themselves fake) sometimes erupting unscripted, powerful and filled with awe. Hopefully the camera caught it...

(Sharptooth, a wolf otherkin, was selected by the producers as focus for the audience to point and laugh; she’s unexpectedly canny in some ways and innocent in others, much closer to being an ordinary person with ordinary life problems than a number of seemingly more everyman characters, and generally a lot more than the producers, the other characters, and probably many readers bargained for. She’s my favorite character, both to read about and as one of the few I would actually want to spend any time with in real life. (Is she convincingly otherkin? Got me. She's definitely convincing as an imaginative young woman with some issues who grew up in a time when otherkin were a known cultural phenomena.)

The show and the novel are clearly meant as mirrors of each other; the backstage discussions on the show, its characters, and its audience invite the readers to inspect the structure and presumed intent of the novel. The show was intended to pull viewers in with sound-bite squalor, then reveal an unexpected amount of truth; the novel is clearly trying to do the same, but with glittering wit, snappy punchlines, and a takedown of contemporary culture in addition to simple squalor. The characters, initially sketched-in or even caricatures, reveal themselves to be more, both within the show and to the novel’s readers. But how much more? How real is anything when the camera’s rolling?

The prose and dialogue of Amends is a real pleasure, biting and clever and snappy, quotable and re-readable. At times it’s almost too polished. One of the points of Amends is how modern American society is constructed to allow us an endless amount of shallow quick fixes we can use to stave off whatever raw and terrifying emotions or reality we’re hiding from. Reach out, and there’s always something there to grab, whether it’s drugs and booze, TV and internet forums, or the cheap fake emotion of talk show revelations and suspiciously modern-sounding ancient religions. Take away the high, take away the social media, take away the camera, and is there anything left? Much as I enjoyed Tushnet’s way with words, there were a few places where her point might have been better made by leaving out the wisecracks, and letting the emotion come through unpolished and unadorned.

It’s possible that I would have read Amends had I not been hired to critique it in manuscript, as I liked Tushnet’s style, which I was familiar with from reading her blog. Or possibly not, due to not being much of a fan of the genres of both satire or the literary mainstream. If I’d passed it up, that would have been my loss. I confess to having fond feelings for this book due to my participation in its evolution, which no doubt add to my liking for the finished result. However, my personal liking is probably counterbalanced by my usual dislike for the genres it belongs to, and so it all evens out.

Amends isn’t my usual kind of book at all, but I liked it a lot. Sentence by sentence, it’s delicious. And while the satire is funny, a lot of the character interactions are downright hilarious. The metafictional conceit is well-done, and while reality TV is obviously an easy target, many of Tushnet’s subjects are less obvious and thoughtfully explored. I don’t think you have to have any particular interest in reality TV, addiction, or rehab to read the book; I’m not the sort of reader who would normally pick it up, and I liked it anyway. It’s not so much about addiction and sobriety as it is about living an authentic life in a plastic world. Or, sometimes, the other way around.

Amends: A Novel Only $3.99 on Kindle
I read this when it first came out; please correct and forgive inaccuracies of memory. (Appropriate to the story!)

Patricia, an Alzheimer's patient, is in a nursing home. The nurses think that she recalls living two completely different lives (and is slipping between realities now) because she has dementia; we, the readers, know that she's recalling alternate timelines.

In 1949, she agreed to a marriage proposal, or not. The woman who agreed became Trish, trapped in a miserably abusive marriage... but also living in the best possible world as far as the general good is concerned, with peace, prosperity, and a moon base. The woman who declined became Pat, who falls in love with a woman, travels, and has a life full of love and self-fulfillment... in a world that slides into nightmarish total war, and seems to headed straight for Armageddon.

Though there are plenty of full scenes with dialogue and so forth, there's also a lot of summary narration. This works surprisingly well; my interest only flagged in the last fifth or so, when I started losing track of the multiplicity of alternate children and grandchildren and their significant others. It's a book about two largely mundane lives that inexplicably has the narrative grip of a thriller. I credit Walton's writing skill for this, and I'm still not sure how she did it. Between the depressingness and the summarizing, by all rights I should have bounced off this book rather than reading it in a day.

I didn't write about the book till now because I had such mixed feelings about it. Artistically, it's very well-done - an unusual use of tell-not-show that succeeds in (mostly) being compelling reading. However, I also found it excruciatingly depressing. It deals centrally with five of my top ten most depressing subjects: Alzheimer's disease, agonizing death by cancer, nuclear war, domestic violence and emotional abuse, and being consigned in a nursing home where you're helpless and mistreated and cut off from everything that makes life bearable.

Regarding the alternate timelines, the ending strongly implied that it was Patricia's choice of who to marry that led to sweeping changes between the timelines. I assume it was a "butterfly effect" in which she made one small change that led to several other small changes that ended up having a gigantic domino effect, but I would have liked to be able to see some of how that happened. I couldn't figure out what it was she did that was important. If I recall correctly, history started changing in big ways right after she either got married or didn't. Trish did get involved in political volunteering, but if I recall correctly, history had already changed at that point. Am I misremembering when history started to change, and it was the volunteering after all? Or was there some other crucial action that I missed?
Rosemary once was a child in a family with a sister, Fern, and a brother, Lowell. Now she's in college, palling around with a manic pixie dream girl named Harlow and trying not to think about the mysterious event that caused Fern to vanish and Lowell's life to go off the rails. The novel switches between Rosemary's childhood and adulthood as she comes to grips with whatever happened.

This novel has a possibly surprising plot twist about a fifth of the way in; I say possibly because I learned of it in a review, and there are other elements of the novel itself which may make it immediately evident. However, I will keep it a surprise for the benefit of those who don't want to be spoiled. I'll put it behind a cut.

Fowler is a highly skilled author whose books, unfortunately, never appeal to me anywhere near as much as they appeal to others. She always has intriguing premises and her novels always get rave reviews, so I keep checking them out. To date, I have never much liked any of them. Something about her prose style, characterization, and tone always strikes me as distant and chilly. This book was no exception. It involves a lot of potentially interesting and moving elements, but I found it dry and unsatisfying. However, I am in the minority in this, so you may well love this or any other of her books.

That being said, if you are at all sensitive to animal harm, avoid this book. It is centrally concerned with cruelty to animals, and contains multiple graphic depictions of it. (I didn't know this when I started, or I would not have read it.)

Great title, though.

Read more... )

By Karen Joy Fowler We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Pen/Faulkner Award - Fiction)
The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo is a charming novella about Geok Huay (Jade Yeo), a young writer living in London in the 20s. When she writes a scathing review of a prominent novelist's latest book, he responds by inviting her to a party and flirting. A writer needs life experience, so how can she decline the opportunity for the learning experience of an affair?

The book has elements of romance, but it's more of a coming-of-age story; the affair is not particularly romantic, and includes a hilarious, deliberately non-erotic sex scene in which Geok Huay earnestly tries to mentally describe a penis for future use in her writing. The actual romance is plausible but sketchily developed.

There's not much real conflict and it seems implausible that Read more... ), but the book isn't really about the plot. It's about Geok Huay's voice. And her voice is a complete delight. I really, really enjoyed reading this book. It's the sort of book where you keep wanting to read funny bits aloud to any companion you might have on hand while you're reading it. The humor and meta-commentary on story and writing reminded me a bit of Cold Comfort Farm.

I reproduce an excerpt below, so you can get a sense of the writing style. If you like the excerpt, you will almost certainly like the book. (If you don't, you probably won't.) It's only $2.99 - well worth the price.

Saturday, 7th August 1920

I had tea with the intolerable aunt today. Aunt Iris, the one who is so rich she has a new fur every year, and so mean she has installed a tip box by the door of every WC in her house, so you have to pay a charge every time you need to go. And so sinfully vainglorious I remember she came to visit us at home once and wore a wonderful glossy black mink fur. She sat on the sofa with a fixed grin on her face, sweating gallons in the heat. Ma had to send Koko out to get the doctor. It was just before New Year and Ma was terrified Aunt Iris would go into an apoplexy in our drawing room–which would have been such bad luck.

I had my angle of attack all planned out today, though. On Wednesday I’d found out how much a piece of chocolate cake cost at the restaurant, and I went in with the exact change in my purse. When the waiter asked me what I wanted, I said: “Chocolate cake, please”, and I counted out my coins and paid him right then and there.

“I haven’t got any more money than that,” I explained.

Aunt Iris was furious: she looked like an aunt and she was wearing her furs, of course. Even the English must have thought it peculiar. But even so she didn’t offer to pay. She ordered two different kinds of cake and a pot of their most expensive tea, just to show me. But I profited in the end because she couldn’t finish even half of one of her slices of cake. I whipped out my notebook and tore out a page and wrapped the other slice in that.

“I’ll save you the hassle of eating it, auntie,” I said. “You must be so full now! I don’t know how you stay so slim at your age.”

I hadn’t meant the reference to her age as a jibe. My mother is a very modern woman in most ways, but she would still be offended to be accounted any younger than she is. Her opinion is that she did not struggle her way to the august age of forty-three only to have the dignity accorded to her years snatched away from her.

But Aunt Iris has become quite Western from living here so long. She has a passionate hunger for youth. It is especially hard on her to be thwarted in it because the British can never tell an Oriental’s age, so she’s been accustomed to being told she looks ten years younger than she is.

“My dear Jade,” she said in her plushest voice–her voice gets the more velvety the crosser she is–“I know you don’t mean to be impolite. Not that I’m saying anything against your dear mother at all–your grandmother wouldn’t have known to teach her these things, of course, considering her circumstances. But as an aunt I do feel I have the right to give you–oh, not a scolding, dearest, but advice, meant in the most affectionate way, you know–given for your sake.”

The swipe at my grandmother’s “circumstances” made me unwise. Aunt Iris is not really an aunt, but a cousin of Ma’s. Her mother was rich and Ma’s mother was poor. But my grandmother was as sharp as a tack even if she couldn’t read and Aunt Iris’s mother never had two thoughts to rub together, even though she had three servants just to look after her house.

“You should call me Geok Huay, Auntie, please,” I said. “With family, there’s no need for all this ‘Jade’.”

I spoke in an especially Chinese accent just to annoy her. Aunt Iris’s face went prune-like.

“Oh, but Jade is such a pretty name,” she said. “And ‘Geok Huay’, you know!” She looked as if my name were a toad that had dropped into her cup of tea. “‘Geok Huay’ in the most glamorous city in the world, in the twentieth century! It has rather an absurd sound to it, doesn’t it?”

“No more absurd than Bee Hoon,” I said. “I’ve always wished I could name a daughter of mine Bee Hoon.”

A vein in Aunt Iris’s temples twitched.

“It means ‘beautiful cloud’,” I said dreamily. “Why doesn’t Uncle Gerald ever call you Bee Hoon, Auntie?”

Aunt Iris said hastily:

“Well, never mind–you’d best take the cake, my dear. Are you sure you don’t want sandwiches as well?”

I was not at all sure I did not want sandwiches. I said I would order some just in case, and ordered a whole stack of them: ham and salmon and cheese and cucumber. Aunt Iris watched me deplete the stack in smiling discontent.

“Greedy little creature!” she tittered. “I would rap your knuckles for stuffing yourself, but you rather need feeding. You are a starveling little slip of a thing, aren’t you? Rose and Clarissa, now, have lovely figures. They are just what real women should look like, don’t you think?”

“You mean they have bosoms and I don’t,” I thought, but did not say. It didn’t seem worth trying to enunciate through a mouthful of sandwich.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo
I read this because I loved Barker’s harrowing, gorgeously written, revelatory Regeneration trilogy, about shell-shocked soldiers in WWI. Having read Border Crossing… I highly recommend Regeneration.

Tom Seymour, a psychologist, is walking along the river with his soon-to-be-ex-wife when a young man leaps into the river. Tom jumps in and saves his life. And then discovers that the young man, Danny, was once a ten-year-old boy who had gone to prison for murder after Tom had examined him and testified that he was capable of understanding the consequences of his actions. Now both Danny and Tom undertake a quest to understand what really happened on the night of the murder.

Border Crossing, unfortunately, had a lot of elements that many genre readers dislike in mainstream fiction— the middle-aged white man with a failing marriage, the under-characterized wife who wants a baby, the anti-climactic and inconclusive ending in which the point appears to be that real life has no point, a general air of gloom— but without much to compensate. (Regeneration has none of those elements, with the possible exception of gloom. I would argue, however, that it is tragic rather than merely glum.)

The characters are under-characterized. We don’t learn much about Tom other than that he’s a sad sack with a failing marriage (and dubious professional ethics, but those seem to be there to make the plot work.) The wife just wants a baby. The social worker is dedicated. Danny appears to be a creepy, sociopathic, possibly psychotic manipulator who murdered because he was fucked up by an abusive childhood… but is that really all there is to it?

Given the tone of the rest of the book, I started expecting to never find out whether or not Danny is actually a murderer. So I was pleased to find that we do get an answer to that. However, it’s not an interesting answer. SPOILER. Read more... )

I was left with an overwhelming sense of underwhelm.

Border Crossing: A Novel

Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy)
A young girl in a floating community off the Gulf Coast throws a message in a bottle into the ocean, and it makes its way across the world, to a political prisoner in solitary confinement on a platform suspended over a lake of fire.

Letters travel back and forth, through the ocean and the post office and fishing boats, through mass media and tied to the leg of a crow. Em, the girl, confides in Kaya her worries about her older brother, who’s in jail for theft. Kaya, the activist, tries to explain her complex political situation in terms a child can understand. They tell each other about the folklore and culture of their communities, which are both under threat, Kaya’s from the government which has banned her language and religion, Em’s from a hurricane and an uncaring larger community.

Em tries to reach her brother and hold her family together; Kaya comes under increasing pressure to stop— or enable— a revolution. Worlds apart, each of them looks for the power to help the other, even if neither can help themselves.

Water and fire, ocean currents and rivers of lava, the Seafather who watches over those who live on the ocean and the Ruby Lady of the volcano, creatures of air and earth and sea, two communities in danger of losing their culture, all come together in this intricate and compelling story, like a pair of hands reaching out toward each other from ten thousand miles away.

The author is a friend of mine, but this unique, moving, sophisticated novel would be up my alley regardless. It’s not quite sui generis; its setting, magical realism, and one of its two heroines reminded me of the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, and its melding of political themes with an edge-of-fantasy quality reminded me of Sherman Alexie and Banana Yoshimoto and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. But it was sufficiently difficult to classify that it could not find a publisher, and so became one of the increasingly large number of self-published gems.

It’s free on Amazon for the weekend as a special promotion. Check it out.

Pen Pal, by Francesca Forrest
This is one of my favorite books. My uncle gave me a copy when I was in high school, and I have re-read it every couple years, ever since.

Isherwood is better known for Berlin Stories, a semi-autobiographical work on pre-Nazi Germany which became the basis for Cabaret.

Prater Violet is a semi-autobiographical account of the young Isherwood was hired to write the screenplay for a relentlessly fluffy Ruritanian musical comedy, Prater Violet, to be shot in London in 1934.

The director, Friedrich Bergmann, is a Jewish intellectual who has left his family back in Austria. Upon first meeting Isherwood, Bergmann remarks, "I am sure we shall be very happy together. You know, already, I feel absolutely no shame before you. We are like two married men who meet in a whorehouse."

Prater Violet, the novel, is largely a character study of Bergmann, who sees both the tragedy and absurdity of his situation, pouring his energy into a ridiculous comedy while danger looms over his family and the world. It is also, quite genuinely, a hilarious backstage comedy about filmmaking, so the movie within the book and the book itself are perfect reflections of each other. The character sketches are dead-on, and the prose is marvelous.

If that was all the book was, I would have liked it a lot. But it's more than that. I'll put what made me fall in love with it, and makes it endlessly re-readable, behind a cut. It's not a plot twist in any conventional sense, but it did surprise me. I'd love to keep it a surprise, to allow you to discover it for yourself.

Since I know what you're all thinking: nobody in the book dies in the Holocaust, or dies at all. It's surprising more for stylistic and thematic reasons.

Read more... )

Prater Violet
A noir mystery so well-written and cleverly structured that it overcame my usual dislike of reading about narcissistic hipster yuppies, not to mention my usual dislike of multiple plot elements which are too spoilery to mention.

Nick’s wife Amy has vanished without a trace, and Nick’s very first chapter contains unsettling musings about the beauty of her skull and the confession that he lied repeatedly in his interview with the police. His narration, which begins the day vanished and continues forward from there, alternates with Amy’s diary, which begins when they first met and also continues forward. Nick is clearly concealing some secrets, but did he kill her? Amy’s narration seems more subtly unreliable, detailing how she makes herself into a paper-thin image of the perfect woman, as portrayed in the shallow magazine quizzes she writes. Is she really fooling herself?

I guessed the main twist upon hearing the premise, and another about a quarter of the way into the book; if you’ve read a lot of mysteries, you will have come across these twists before, though probably not half so well-executed. So the pleasure for me was in the excellent prose and the suspense of the unfolding, in the details rather than the broad strokes. I knew where the story was headed, in general terms, but the smaller twists took me by surprise. I was up till 3:00 AM reading, and have no regrets.

Warning: even for noir, the characters are incredibly unlikable. I did care what happened to them, but not because I liked them.

You can read the beginning of the book here.

Giant spoilers lurk below.

Read more... )
Thanks to whoever recommended this to me – I know it was someone on LJ.

It begins with a scene which I found a bit hard to get into, in which Syme, a policeman, debates an anarchist poet, Gregory, over the meaning and value of anarchy and poetry. Determined to prove the strength of his convictions, Gregory swears Syme to secrecy, then takes him to a meeting of grotesque anarchist terrorists, each named for a day of the week. The role of “Thursday” is currently up for election…

I don’t want to spoil what happens next. The person who recommended it to me noted that it was better read knowing as little about it as possible. This was an excellent suggestion. I had absolutely no idea where the story was going until about a third of the way in, and even then, the ending came as a marvelous surprise.

It’s a surrealist allegory, an absurdist comedy, a debate on the nature of evil and the ways of God, full of nightmarish or farcical or beautiful set-pieces, and very wittily written.

Here Symes is running through a zoo in search of a hansom cab with which to pursue someone who is riding an elephant:

As they raced along to the gate out of which the elephant had vanished, Syme felt a glaring panorama of the strange animals in the cages which they passed. Afterwards he thought it queer that he should have seen them so clearly. He remembered especially seeing pelicans, with their preposterous, pendant throats. He wondered why the pelican was the symbol of charity, except it was that it wanted a good deal of charity to admire a pelican. He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. Sunday had told them that they would understand him when they had understood the stars. He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.

While the prose style and social preoccupations of the time of writing (1908) have gone out of fashion, and the majority of my readers will probably object to the politics, not to mention the lack of female characters, this is a pretty amazing book, and one which I will undoubtedly re-read.

Spoilers are allegorical )

Feel free to discuss with spoilers in comments.

The novel is available free on Project Gutenberg and at Amazon: The Man Who Was Thursday, a nightmare
God knows if I'll ever see this weird little book again, but I have to record some choice quotes as I read it here in Ryoso Kawasaki, with a lovely view of the ocean and a pagoda tower before me, along with a can of hot coffee. It's a truly odd mixture of fantasy, history, folklore, and Miyajima tourism promotion.

The author's introduction explains that he visited Miyajima after a hurricane, and began pondering its tragic history: across the ocean from Hiroshima, and the site of the war between the Heike and Genji clans.

The story begins as an unnamed miko (shrine maiden) secretly gives birth on Miyajima, where women are not supposed to give birth as it's impure. (She got pregnant by secretly having sex with a man in the stable of the mechanical white horse, which was clean since neither horses nor monkeys are allowed on Miyajima. By the way, I have a photo of a white horse statue here, which is probably what was referred to. It's creepy.) Omens were bad: the fortunetelling thing where omens were predicted by seeing how crows eat dumplings didn't go well. That is called otoguishiki, and since googling it turned up a photo of a crow flying off with a dumpling, I assume it's real.

She is spotted by tengu, who tells her if she has sex with him, he won't tell anyone about her baby and will give her the ability to see the past. She does so (no details, alas) but it of course turns out to be a curse. No mention of what happened to her baby. The author plunges into a history of the Heike clan which assumes all readers are as up on it as he is. I am not. But it's entertaining anyway, complete with a really gross two-page description of exactly how to cut someone in half diagonally.

Things are bad in Kyoto: There are even stories of people being so hungro that they ate other people. Ever since then, it has come to be said that human beings taste like pomegranates.

Tomoe Gozen just turned up. Usui commends her beauty, horsemanship, and martial prowess.

After describing how an arrow pierced a fan across the sea (I'm sure this is a famous event from the Heike tales), Usui pauses some tourist assistance: As for Miyajima souvenirs or gifts, there is nothing better than the momiji manju. It was conceived by the proprietress of an inn in Momijidani after the Meiji era started.

A gay quarter existed, and men very much fancied and fully enjoyed it. The legend that there is a very jealous Goddess named Ichikishima-Hime in Miyajima and that when a married couple visits the island, the two will be torn apart, came from the thinking of protecting the male paradise.
The heartbreaking final book in Barker’s WWI trilogy.

Prior returns to the front by his own choice, where he joins Wilfred Owen, while Rivers continues treating mentally and physically brutalized soldiers at home. Meanwhile, Rivers remembers his time spent doing anthropological research on a Melanesian island, where the British ban on head-hunting had destroyed the local way of life. That part of the book steers neatly between the Scylla of Look At Those Wacky Primitives and the Charybdis of They Are Simpler Yet Wiser Than Us; the similarities and differences between their ways and the British ones, and between Rivers and a Melanesian healer, are complex, not easily summarized, and lead to the novel’s powerful conclusion.

The “eye” motif of the last book is replaced with a “head” motif in this one. I know that sounds a bit silly, but it plays out with wrenching elegance. The heads and skulls on the island are sometimes the product of violence, sometimes attached to captives who may live out their natural lifespans in comfort (so long as their head isn’t needed), and sometimes represent a deep respect for the process of life and death: the stacks of skulls are the link to their pasts and ancestors and families, the essential element of their culture without which it may not survive, and the product of the deepseated human urge to kill. Rivers repeatedly deals with horrific head injuries occurred in a war that makes pointless all his efforts to heal and to understand, the war without which he would never have done his best work.

Everything we are, everything which makes us special and unique, is in a ball of grey-pink gelatin protected by a helmet of flesh and bone: a prize, a lover’s face, a surgical problem, a link to the holy, an object of horror, the source of poetry.

The Ghost Road (William Abrahams)
A sequel to Regeneration, the historical novel about shellshocked WWI soldiers being treated at a psychiatric hospital.

This was harder for me to get into at first than Regeneration, because the early section concentrates on Billy Prior, the bisexual soldier with class issues, now reassigned to domestic intelligence due to asthma. Prior is interesting but chilly, hard to like. He’s maintaining a girlfriend and having discreet encounters with men on the side; he’s working for an agency devoted to persecuting and jailing pacifists, deserters, and gay and lesbian people, when he’s bisexual himself and has pacifist friends. The first section, which is about Prior’s inner conflicts as embodied in various figures from his low-class past who are now unjustly jailed or on the run from the war he’s trying to return to, is well-done but, for me, more intellectually than emotionally engaging.

To my relief, the novel then returns to Rivers, the psychiatrist, who is once again treating both Prior and Siegfried Sassoon, who has been sent back to England after being wounded again. It’s amazing from there out – suspenseful, and satisfying on every level. All the therapy scenes, and the way that people’s psychological secrets were unraveled, were beautifully done – clever but not reductionist.

There were a number of plot surprises, which I will put under a cut.

Read more... )

I highly recommend this novel. All else aside, it’s one of the best uses of a repeated motif – the eye – I’ve ever encountered. Warning for horrific wartime violence, and the aftermath of that violence.
People had recommended this book to me for years, saying that it depicted PTSD very well. Unfortunately, since no one elaborated that it was a historical novel about WWI, I mixed it up with a novel called Restoration, by Carol Berg, which I couldn't get more than a chapter into, and which involved slaves, demons, and emo winged dudes. I always assumed the PTSD must come later.

Regeneration is a historical novel about a psychiatric hospital treating shell-shocked WWI soldiers with the goal, ideally, of sending them back to the front. Dr. Rivers is a compassionate if rather distant psychiatrist with a deeply-held and well-reasoned belief that the war, though terrible, is necessary. But as he treats men and listens to their horrific stories, and sees the damage the war wrought on their bodies, minds, and souls, he begins to suffer from second-hand traumatization. And, more troubling to him, he begins to doubt.

The main story follows Rivers' therapy with Siegfried Sassoon, an intellectual kindred spirit whom Rivers is determined to bring round to the view that he must return to the front rather than get court-martialed for declaring that the war is wrong. But the omniscient POV also follows other patients and other doctors, and then the people they get involved with: their families, their girlfriends, townspeople and soldiers. As the effects of the war ripple outward, so does every small moment of human kindness and cruelty. The elegant, clear prose and understated tone conveys both the utter horror of the situations, and how those horrors become both unbearable and unremarkable.

Fantastic book - great writing, great characterization, historically interesting, very psychologically astute. It does depict PTSD very well, and also conversion disorders ("hysterical paralysis/blindness/etc,") which were much more common then than now.

There are two sequels. Has anyone read them?

Regeneration (Regeneration Trilogy)
Unlike many others in my high school, I didn’t read Flowers in the Attic (Dollanganger) then. It had a black cover with scary zombie children, and I was under the impression that it was horror about vampires. Much later I learned that it was actually about incestuous children in an attic. I have now read it, and believe that I have discovered the source of fandom’s incest obsession, at least that incest-happy section of fandom which is American and read the book in their formative years.

This is a great book to read on a plane, especially when you can poke your seatmate and read bits aloud. In the first chapter, titled “Goodbye, Daddy,” a highway patrolman comes to the house of the lovely Momma and her four children, Chris, Cathy, Carrie, and Cory. His explanation of what happened is a typical example of how Andrews fulfills expectations (Dad was squashed on the highway) and then takes them not just one, but at least two steps further into feverish melodrama than one expects:

”According to the accounts, which we’ve recorded, there was a motorist driving a blue Ford weaving in and out of the lefthand lane, apparently drunk, and he crashed head-on into your husband’s car. But it seems your husband must have seen the accident coming, for he swerved to avoid a head-on collision, but a piece of machinery had fallen from another car, or truck, and this kept him from completing his defensive driving maneuver, which would have saved his life. But as it was, your husband’s much heavier car turned over several times, and still he might have survived, but an oncoming truck, unable to stop, crashed into his car, and again the Cadillac spun over… and then… it caught on fire.”

As if those THREE accidents weren’t enough, the cop then produces the charred stuffed animals Daddy had purchased for his kids, which he had been driving home to deliver but which ended up strewn across the highway of death!

Momma then whisks her kids away to the ominous house of her parents, who hate her. I had thought the mention, early on, that Momma and Daddy looked like brother and sister was foreshadowing for the upcoming incest. No! It was foreshadowing for the revelation that Momma and Daddy were, in fact, related. He was her half-uncle! So her mother hates her and her incestuous spawn, and Momma and grandmother lock all four kids in the attic until Momma can find the right moment to tell her ailing father about them. Or for the aging father to will her tons of money and die.

Three years of increasingly melodramatic child abuse in the attic ensues. The grandmother spots Chris seeing Cathy naked and tries to hack off her hair. Then she sneaks in, injects Cathy with a sedative, and pours tar over her head. Chris pees into the bathtub to de-tar Cathy’s hair, and it comes out silver and more beautiful than ever. Grandmother doesn’t feed them for a week, and Chris cuts his wrist with a penknife and feeds the others on his own blood!

Momma re-marries and STILL doesn’t let them out of the attic. Chris and Cathy angst and lust over each other. Cathy sneaks out and beholds Momma’s bed, which is shaped like a swan.

And then came the most melodramatic twist yet!

Read more... )
By the author of the Finn Family Moomintroll (Moomintrolls) books, which like many children’s classics are wise and strange, alternating comfort with manageable scares, and filled with the closely observed details of a world familiar to the author but alien to many readers. The same can be said of the adult novel The Summer Book (New York Review Books Classics), though the fears addressed are rather less easily manageable.

Jannson spent much of her life on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, and The Summer Book, which reads like a memoir regardless of its actual autobiographical content or lack of same, is set on a similar island. Sophia, a six-year-old girl filled with the irrational moods and passions of the very young, and her grandmother, filled with the layered experience and perspective of the very old, live on it along with Sophia’s father, who is a benign but occasional presence, and a great deal of wildlife.

There is virtually no plot, just a series of character portraits and incidents: a child visits to keep Sophia company and ends up annoying the entire family, a cat fails to live up to Sophia’s ideals, the grandmother creates sculptures in a forest, a family friend with an unnamed boat salvages floating whiskey and fireworks which don’t go off. Jansson gets more emotional mileage out of a flooded dollhouse than many authors get from a natural disaster.

Sophia’s mother has died, a fact which is mentioned exactly once, and her grandmother is in poor health; the submerged story is of mortality, of what it’s like to face the end of life and what it’s like to face the beginning. Both are frightening and require careful attention to the small details; both enable those details to be observed with crystalline clarity. Every word and image counts, the psychology of little children and animals is dead-on, and there’s a lot of dry, sardonic humor.

Some of my favorite books and shows and movies are in this genre, stories about people and places and the way things and jobs and ecologies work, with conventional plot either dispensed with or appearing as an afterthought: Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, in which the day-to-day work of a nunnery is prayer made physical; Anita Desai’s Peacock Garden Desai Long Ago (no relation to the Godden book of the same name), in which a girl hiding from the violence of Partition within a mosque’s walled garden finds it a miniature paradise; the anime and manga Mushi-shi: The Complete Series, which do have plots but are really about the intricate and beautiful workings of an entirely invented magical ecology; the movie My Neighbor Totoro, with its soot sprites and the cat bus and spirits waiting with umbrellas; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, perhaps the prototype of all these stories of small worlds, of growing things and growing children, of life and death and profound spiritual revelations embodied in a single blade of grass.

Thank you very much, [livejournal.com profile] madam_silvertip! I loved it and I never even heard of it till it arrived in the mail.
I had to return the book to the library before I had a chance to write it up; please forgive any mistakes herein.

This is a sequel of sorts to Myers' Vietnam War novel Fallen Angels, and the main character, an American soldier, is the nephew of the main character in the latter. Comparisons are impossible not to make, and the more recent novel suffered.

The major differences, apart from the obvious ones of time and setting, are the presence of female soldiers, the prominence given to the civilians of the country the American soldiers are invading/defending (depending on one's point of view), and the overall level of cynicism and anger in the book.

Several of the major characters are female soldiers, and this is totally normal to all the characters. Iraqi civilians are far more of a presence in Sunrise Over Fallujah than are Vietnamese civilians in Fallen Angels, and there are several powerful scenes in which Iraqis have conversations with Americans.

A big problem with the novel is that the characters weren't as vivid and eccentric as they were in Fallen Angels, and this ties into my other problem with the book, which was what I sensed as Myers' reluctance to speak too frankly about a war that's still going on.

While he doesn't stint on the trauma and violence of war, there are no genuinely unsympathetic portrayals of Americans, no one commits any atrocities, nor does anyone ever voice any sentiment one half as cynical as what one finds on every other page of Fallen Angels. The American military is portrayed as extremely competent, and there are none of the bureaucratic snafus found in Fallen Angels. (Yes, the all-volunteer Army now is more professional than the Vietnam-era one which had draftees who never wanted to be in it at all, but between news stories abotu makeshift body armor and talking to current members of the US military, Myers' well-oiled machine was just not believable.)

I think Myers didn't want to risk demoralizing people who are still fighting, but what that did was make the entire book feel weirdly sanitized. It's also a YA novel, but seriously, Myers has written YA novels that felt a lot more raw than this one.

I was also really thrown by a brief scene in which Jessica Lynch, Shoshanna Johnson, and Lori Piestewa made an appearance before they were taken prisoner. Since the rest of the characters were fictional and some of those people are still alive, it felt out of place and slightly creepy.

It's not a bad book, but it probably would have been better if Myers had waited longer before writing it.

Click here to buy it from Amazon: Sunrise Over Fallujah
We got word that General Westmoreland wanted us to "maximize" destruction of the enemy.

"What the fuck does that mean?" Peewee asked. "We get a Cong, we supposed to kill his ass twice?"

This is one of the best Vietnam War novels I've ever read, and I've read quite a few of them.

It follows the usual structure of a novel from the point of view of an American soldier: the arrival of a naive kid who has no idea what he's in for, his brutal baptism of fire, his bonding with his fellow soldiers, his realization of the absurdity of military rules in a situation where logic doesn't seem to apply; disillusionment, misery, PTSD, questioning of what the war is about and whether killing other scared kids is right; black humor, grief, violence, terror; concluding in either death or a homecoming that, whether it's actually depicted in the novel or not, the reader knows is just the beginning of yet another long and harrowing journey.

Myers' novel fits that structure to a T. What makes it special is that it's just so well done: the black humor is actually funny, the characters are vivid, the atmosphere makes you feel like you're there, the philosophical and moral dilemmas are real and complex. Myers particularly excels at making combat suspenseful without making it seem glamorous. He captures the boredom of the troops without boring the readers by depicting them doing all sorts of ridiculous things, like watching a movie with the reels mixed up, in a desperate effort to kill time.

The dialogue is especially great. I kept marking pages with bits I wanted to quote, then moving the marker to the next page, and the next. Highly recommended.

The book's dedication: To my brother, Thomas Wayne "Sonny" Myers, whose dream of adding beauty to this world through his humanity and his art ended in Vietnam on May 7, 1968.

Click here to buy the paperback from Amazon: Fallen Angels
I really like Sarah Waters. Her other novels all feature Victorian lesbians. Affinity is a very spooky, claustrophobic thriller/love story/spoiler about a medium imprisoned after a seance goes horribly wrong, and the woman who visits her in prison. Tipping the Velvet is a very fun picaresque which bounces from oyster bars to theatres to the rooms of kept girls. Fingersmith is a wild thriller which doesn't entirely make sense in places, but is one hell of a ride. I recommend all of those. Some people hate Affinity because of the DO NOT SPOIL ending, but it's my favorite.

The Night Watch is well-written and gripping, but lacks the excitement, passion, and sense of joyous discovery that permeate Waters' other books. (Even her tragedies seem like she had fun writing them, even if the characters didn't have fun living them.) It's about the intertwined lives of several Londoners after and during the Blitz, and is told backwards in time. This narrative device is not arbitrary, and provides for a few interesting discoveries and poignant moments; but it also makes the entire book quite depressing, as we already know how everyone will end up, and nobody ends up better than "maybe, just maybe, they will now take a tiny step toward improving their life," and some of them don't even get that.

Several years after the war is over, everyone is miserable. Kay, the butch former ambulance driver, is mired in post-traumatic stress, depression, and agoraphoia; Duncan, the young former prisoner, is living with an old man and collecting worthless antiques; his sister Vi, a young woman, is stuck in a loveless and passionless affair with a married man; and Helen, whom I regret to say that I HATE, is obsessively jealous of her lover, the cold writer Julia whom I also kind of hate.

After a long section exploring their lives, the narrative jumps back to the Blitz, and we see who they were before, what their relationships were, and some light is shed on the more myserious elements of the first section. At the end of this, the concluding section jumps back even further, to the start of the Blitz; the concluding scene is lovely, but intensely depressing because we know how that particular relationship worked out.

I was fascinated by Kay, the heroic ambulance driver, her work rescuing victims of the air raids, and the society of butch volunteers she hung out with. I could have happily read an entire book about her and her friend Mickey, whom I loved with a passion disproportionate to her brief appearances. The other characters either interested me less, or their situations interested me less; the reason Duncan was in jail was tragic and not a story often told, but he was a rather opaque character and so were the men he interacted with; I liked his sister Vi, but except for her brief but wonderful interaction with Kay, her story was mostly about loving a married jerk and that has been told a million times; Helen and Julia I just didn't like, ever, and the more I learned about them, the less time I wanted to spend in their company, even on paper.

Worth reading if you're a Waters fan, but not a good introduction. It did make me want to read more about the Blitz, though. (Two of my favorite short stories of all time are set there, Connie Willis' "Fire Watch" ("deaths: one cat") and "Jack.") Any recommendations? Especially, any recommendations for fact or fiction featuring lesbians and/or people doing the more dramatic sort of volunteer work, search and rescue, fire watch, ambulance drivers, and the like?
This is a sequel to the remarkable The Vanished Child, a book for which I was surprised to learn that there was a sequel. (In fact, it's a trilogy.)

I didn't love this like I loved The Vanished Child, though it's well-written and displays an admirable lack of sap. While The Vanished Child has a strong focus on one story and I read it in one sitting, Water is a set of narratives that cohere around a central event and theme, and never gets much narrative momentum going. I meant to read it in an afternoon, but I kept putting it down.

Spoilers for The Vanished Child; General notes on Water )

Spoilers for The Knowledge of Water )

I will read the third book, though.


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