Saturday, November 04, 2017

Blankets by Craig Thompson

There isn't much more to be said about Blankets, Craig Thompson's award-winning autobiography of his adolescence. It is visually stunning and the story strikes a deep chord in the heart and the memory. 

I remember those long winters and how long those winter breaks from school seemed back then. I remember we had four seasons back then, too. I recall how falling in love was so utterly foreign and absolutely all I wanted simultaneously, this deep desire to love and be loved. However, it was my unfortunate custom to go from zero to sixty, from an evening holding hands to proclaiming my deepest feelings in a few short days usually via a copied song lyric that completely overstated what I was trying to get across. "I'll cross the sky for your love" from U2's Drowning Man comes to mind. Oh those poor girls I must have overwhelmed with my adolescent ardor.

Now let's be clear, that wasn't Thompson's way at all. In fact, he sort of falls backwards into love with his heart's desire, Raina (I fell in love with her a bit myself while reading the story. Doesn't everybody?). In fact, he's almost as confused by her as he is attracted to her but they are of a pair. Certainly, an unlikely pair, she the lovely and popular to his introverted artiness. What initially binds them is their evangelicalism but it becomes clear when Craig visits Raina that they approach and hold their faith very differently. They sparkle and burn brightly but that is tough to maintain. 

If you don't read many or any graphic novels, I encourage you to try this. It is as good a story as you'll find in any print novel and the art is truly gorgeous. I also admire the courage it took to lay himself so bare and reveal those ugly parts of our youth that we want no one else to know even after all these years. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

The latest from Alexie, a memoir, may be the author at, to coin a phrase, his Alexie-est. It is infuriating, repetitive, whiny, overbearing and we've heard much of it before. It is self-serving, self-centered, self-indulgent, and self-absorbed. It is Alexie at his worst.

But, and seemingly as ever, it is beautifully written and painfully raw. It is unnervingly tender, bravely confessional, absurdly funny, and utterly heart-breaking. It is Alexie at his best. 

Having followed his career since first reading him in the second incarnation of Story magazine, regular Reed-ers know how much I love his work. This latest is an exploration of the difficult relationship between himself and his mother, Lillian. There is much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments along with the plaintive wail of "Mommy didn't love me!". Often, it appears she didn't. 

One passage describes their relationship this way:
" her son and perhaps her most regular opponent, I only remember a little bit of my mother's kindness and almost everything about her coldness.

Did she love me? Did my mother love me? When I gather up all the available evidence, I have to say, "Yes, Lillian Alexie loved Sherman Alexie, Jr." But I can only render that verdict with reasonable doubts. "  

There are statements like this throughout the book. 
To me, this was Alexie actively grieving before my eyes and in my hands. He hurts.

There is also a physical component to all the mental anguish as he delves deeply into his own health issues (born with hydrocephalus, he suffered a host of maladies the reservation was ill-equipped to help with) and the very painful stories of repeated sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of people he knew well throughout his childhood. Nor does he let us forget the culture of racism, poverty, alcoholism, and violence that was ever-present. 

Telling these stories repeatedly in public led the author to curtail his book tour this summer. Rehashing all this pain became too much for him to bear mentally and physically. When I read of this, my heart ached for him. 

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me is no easy read nor is it a how-to in healthy suffering. To some, it might even be perceived as the author dropping the mic and walking away like all the kids do these days. However, those familiar with him know he could NEVER live without an audience or cease telling stories. All I can wish is that Alexie finds solace or a measure of peace sooner than later. 

And if you can, call your Mom. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Author Jon Ronson has been popping up on podcasts I've listened to for years and I'm generally enthralled by the stories he tells. Too, his soft-spoken, sing-song English accent never fails to grab me so at last, I'm reading his work. 

To be honest, I read this particular title in order to help determine if a person in my life is actually a psychopath. While I have my suspicions, I wanted to learn more about psychopathy in order to make my own unqualified assessment and then be all judge-y and shit. 

In fact, this same idea is among the reasons Ronson wrote the book: he became aware of a man who faked his way into a mental hospital to avoid prison and who then couldn't get out. From there, Ronson learns of Dr. Robert Hare and his psychopath test: 20 questions that have become a standard in diagnosing psychopathy (I'm skipping over how the book starts with an odd story about random academics who receive copies of a custom, cryptic book since you pretty much can ignore that).

As Ronson  applies his newfound knowledge, he starts seeing psychopaths everywhere and this is a fellow who certainly knows how to find people who are, shall we say, a bit off. In fact, he feels so empowered by this wee bit of knowledge that, as the book goes on, he recognizes the Hale test might be too broad to be consistently correct. He also learns those with psychopathic tendencies are less often the homicidal maniacs that we've come to associate with the term but quite often leaders in government and business. It seems psychopathy lends itself to this personality type. Are they all nuts or just misunderstood? Tough call. 

Ultimately, what I believe Ronson learned by writing The Psychopath Test is that while someone may indeed be a psychopath, it isn't for him to decide. Same goes for me. As Alexander Pope said, "A little learning is a dangerous thing". 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace

Let us now meet Edsel Bronfman. He's not Ed or Eddie to anyone. He's Edsel. In fact, as Charlie Brown is always called Charlie Brown, he's really more Edsel Bronfman. Two words

As a first name, Edsel is unusual, outdated, and reminiscent of the automobile that was such a spectacular failure. Bronfman sounds like a muffled tubercular sneeze. The shoe fits. 

Edsel Bronfman is ordinary. Extra ordinary--two words, not one. He lives in Birmingham in a shabby apartment in a shabbier complex where his only semblance of a friend is a drug dealer Edsel distrusts. He has held the same position, a junior executive shipping manager, for ages,where he has perfect attendance and you imagine he will likely retire in, oh, 30 more years. In his free time, he looks after his free-spirited mother though she gets along just fine, thank you. His world is tiny and he keeps it that way. Edsel Bronfman doesn't live his life. He is just passin' through.  

Adventure or the potential for one arrives with a phone call. A Carla D'Angelo (how exotic-sounding!) is calling from Extraordinary Adventures to tell him he's won a free trip to Destin. The only cost is the time-share pitch meeting he must attend in order to collect. The catch is that this prize is for couples and he has 79 days to work it out or he forfeits. As you might imagine, Edsel has never been chosen for anything. He's never been anywhere. He's certainly never won anything. He's the equivalent of human wallpaper so this prize offer is a big to-do and sets in motion his adventures. 

Now you might want to write this off as a frothy beach read or trite rom com material but fortunately for us, we are in the capable hands of Daniel Wallace. Sure, it ain't War and Peace but it's not supposed to be. What we get is a funny, and very touching portrait of an extraordinarily lonely man who attempts to break out. It's as if he only now sees there is a world out there and he can actually live in it; that he deserves to do so. 

What follows is a great shambling attempt at romance and second-guessing with the impetuous Sheila McNabb. On the way, he attracts the attentions of a lovely lady cop and the drug dealers' girlfriend. Edsel is working without a net and we can't help but root for him. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

When the English Fall by David Williams

Dystopian fiction is all the rage and has been for some time now, especially in the YA market. Done well, it can make for great storytelling (see work by Orwell, Atwood, Huxley, Bradbury, Burgess, etc). I keep reading how, with that orange maniac and his cronies hastening the decline of the republic, this outpouring of dystopian fiction is a metaphor, as well as a manifestation, of our current fears. Perhaps so. I was especially intrigued by his new spin on it and was rewarded with a fast, tense novel that practically made me yearn to be Amish. 

Jacob is an old order Amish farmer in rural eastern Pennsylvania and the story is told from his journal entries. At first, they are normal, even mundane, as he discusses work on the farm, the families in his community, and his hopes and fears for his own family. His daughter has an ability to see the future which causes him grave concern but, of late, she has been on an even keel. Still, he worries. 

One evening, the skies dance with strange light, both beautiful and terrifying. However, no light shines from the nearby town and the family sees a plane plummet from the sky. The next day, Jacob learns a solar storm has destroyed all electric and electronic power. The English world (the non-Amish world) is crippled. 

So begins the end of the world scenario--communication is all but impossible and as desperation leads to lawlessness, the Army's grasp on order slips. Jacob clings to his family, his community, and his deep faith as the English begin to encroach on his way of life. 

What most endeared Jacob to me was his sense of honor, fairness, and grace amidst the struggle over which he has no control. Were it not for the dire situation for the English, he could live his life as he always has but he must serve his fellow man and so he does. While his family and community come first, he also helps those outside, even taking in an English family. Williams evokes great humanity in Jacob and his wife, Hannah, and the religious aspects of the book never seems cloying. In fact, they seem quite genuine which makes sense since the author is a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church.

When The English Fall is a rewarding story of kindness and decency set in a time of desperation and ruin. Let's hope it's not too prescient. If so, I want Jacob as my neighbor. 

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Almost Missed You by Jessica Strawser

The author is a friend, former colleague, and a homegirl and I was thrilled when she landed a book deal with a big house and more excited to be at her book signing debut. However, there was a lot of anxiety about this first novel mostly because she and I are old pals and what if I didn't like her book? 

Now when asked to be an early reader prior to publication, I am always straightforward with notes and opinions even if they might sting a little. If I'm not honest at this point, it serves no one well and it's a waste of everyone's time to tell a friend their work is better than I really think it is. Certainly they may not agree with my suggestions but at least I've been square with them and fulfilled my duty.

However, post-pub is a little dicier, especially since I write about what I read on occasion. I will confess, there was a time or two that I chickened out completely and that was just an awful feeling. The faint praise I was able to muster coupled with not writing about it here was, well, it was miserable. Miserable and obvious. 

Happily that was not the case with Almost Missed You, a gripping tale of betrayal, grief, and kidnapping. It is a taut, tangled tale of deep friendships and dark secrets (my, how alliterative I am this morning!). Strawser offers up a worst-case scenario that somehow manages to worsen and which threatens everyone involved. When I felt certain I knew where this was going, it didn't and I found that quite skillful. 

I will say that had it not been written by a friend, I'm not sure I would have found this book but I'm so glad I did. She'll have another book coming out in 2018. Jump on the bandwagon now. 

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

Tinti's The Good Thief was among my favorites of 2008 (we was kids back then, weren't we?) so I have waited years for another novel. I have been patient because she has been busy at the helm of the fantastic One Story, a subscription service celebrating the short story. As a fan and proponent of the short story form, I have been an ardent supporter and subscriber for many years (It makes a swell gift, too! And such a deal! One Story website). Her latest is a worthy successor. 

The twelve lives in the title are actually the specific details surrounding the twelve times Sam Hawley was shot over his lifetime. In short, Hawley is an accomplished crook for hire despite the number of bullets in his hide. His young life is spent pulling jobs and living quietly and nomadically off his fees. This life is changed dramatically when he meets Lily at the funeral of her father, himself a career criminal. It is with her that he can lose himself and with whom he has Loo, his beloved daughter. 

Sam lives a life laced with longing and loneliness. That longing manifests itself in a shrine to Lily in every bathroom where they live. Lonely in that he must always keep a low profile since reprisal could happen at almost any time. Because they often need to pull up stakes at a moments notice, there are many bathrooms. As a result, Loo's life is heavy with these feelings without knowing why.  The books' first sentence, "When Loo was twelve years old, her father taught her how to shoot a gun" certainly sets up the rest of the story. 

As ever, Tinti manages to capture the very essence of her characters. As we came to adore Ren and Dolly in The Good Thief, we love Lily and how she makes it possible for Sam to love. As a result, we can only begin to understand his endless grief. 

As for Loo, she is one of those very rare birds that literature allows us to glimpse in the wild. Tinti writes gorgeously of her young life and how her normal adolescent struggles are even more trying living under the lingering cloud that is her mother's memory and the many crimes of her father. 

Though very different from her first novel, it has been well worth the wait to read Tinti again. She is a brilliant storyteller who deserves a much bigger audience. 

If you'd like another take on this book, see what this smart fellow has to say: 
Ron Charles review