Is Less More in Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall?

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.

Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.

There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks.   Continue reading

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I’m Bored First while The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last

I can’t help but express my disappointment for Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian novel, The Heart Goes Last.  I was so excited when NetGalley sent me an advance Kindle copy as I was a huge fan of the MaddAddam Trilogy.  But I’m sad to report that Atwood, the sly mistress of speculative fiction, finally seems to be running on fumes.

The Heart Goes Last begins promisingly enough.  In the (not so distant?) future, a young couple, Charmaine and Stan, is living out of their car while the world around them has gone to hell after a financial collapse decimates most of the East Coast of the US turning it into one giant version of Camden, NJ.  But then the once hopeless couple sees a way out when they hear about The Positron Project in the planned community of Consilience.  Here, well-mannered prisoners mix with the desperate destitute (but otherwise law-abiding) masses who can’t find work.  The inhabitants take turns living in a planned community and a low-security prison, swapping time, houses and lives as they carry out tasks for the corporation that runs Consilience.

Atwood creates a golden opportunity to explore the slippery slope of our current privatization of prisons, but sadly the novel glosses over that as things devolve into the absurd and Charmaine and Stan’s tale becomes a silly sex farce (not too far removed from Woody Allen’s cringe worthy Sleeper) jam-packed with CEO’s gone mad, corporate conspiracies, wife swapping, sex bots (who in grand Atwood wordplay are branded Possibilibots), and Neuropimps  who erase all of your past hang-ups so they can imprint your sex drive onto anyone (who pays for it) or anything (there is a darkly humorous side bit where one minor character imprints onto a teddy bear). Continue reading

God Help the Reader in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Cover

It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past.  Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts.  God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end.  There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann.  There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape.  There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.

At times, the abuse is overwhelming.  No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched.  It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed.  In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds.  Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.

But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily.  The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash.  The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways).  Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract.  Continue reading

My Favorite Novels

Mantlepiece Collection

Maybe it was reading The Telegraph’s list of greatest novels of the 21st Century (we’re only 15 years in, people!) that I found to be absolute bollocks…

Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today.  How many new entries?  What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?

Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right?  (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)

At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists. 

What are your favorite novels?

Here are mine: Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

Continue reading

My Rage Against Mandatory Reading

Rat in a Cage Lyrics

…reading the books THEY told me to read!

Sure, I’ll never forget reading Elie Wiesel’s Night or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore honors English class in high school.  Damn shit changed my life.  Even my mopey, proto-goth, depressed sniveling brat self at the “all-knowing” and “all the world sucks” age of fifteen could see this stuff was da bomb and preaching the truth.

But, damn, the OTHER shit we were forced to read in high school scarred me for me life and left me with a counter-productive psychological aversion to anything labeled as mandatory reading…to the point that it took nearly fifteen years before I got over the mandatory reading stigma and finally devoured Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (so clearly one of the greatest novels of all time).  However, despite years of literary therapy and my successful relationship with those wrathful wine pellets, I still to this day absolutely REFUSE to read Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.  Yes, I still have the nerve to refuse to read Salinger!  S-A-L-I-N-G-E-R!!! (But I might go see that doc about him.)  These classics of mandatory reading somehow slipped through the cracks at my high school, but because they have been mandatory reading for just about every other teen in America over the past sixty odd years, I’ve avoided them unfairly in my adult years.

Why you ask?  Because the following were mandatory reading during my teenage years…and I’ll never forget the pain these books put me through.

Behold, the king of them all, the most egregious piece of mandatory reading I suffered through in my days of delicate youth, a book that almost ruined my love for reading:

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Continue reading

The English Patient vs The English Patient vs The English Patient

“There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk…She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

At age sixteen he was just beginning to learn of the world. There were things beyond…art houses in the city where stories from foreign lands and birthed in independence flickered in the animated darkness before communities of the willing. Amongst the suburban sprawl of his homeland across the river, the purveyors of these urban establishments spawned a megaplex like no other where established fare mingled with independent films and cross continental tongues whispered hotly in the darkness of small air-conditioned screening rooms smartly furnished. It was here his parents took him one night to see The English Patient.

Closing in on his 34th year on this earth and looking back (somehow having circled back to this suburban sprawl now naming a spot his adjacent to that very megaplex which has passed through as many hands as he has homes), he longs for those innocent days…that wonder of experiencing something on-screen he had never experienced before – a painterly, carefully constructed, flawed and blistering work of art splashed across a silver screen. A romance with the cinema was born then as he watched the elliptical tale of human frailty and survival against the backdrop of the world’s greatest war.

Continue reading

Norwegian by Night and Brilliant All Day

I always balk when people say to me, “I couldn’t put this book down!”  That rarely happens to me.  As I writer, I almost always start micro-managing the books I read, wondering what was going on in the author’s head at the time, the hidden meanings behind their choice of words, the turn of phrase, the setting…what this, that or the other thing is supposed to represent.  I pillage the words on the pages for deeper meaning even if there isn’t meant to be any…even if the author’s only aim was to entertain.  I’ve often been known to nitpick books to death, especially popular best-sellers, to my own displeasure and in a disservice to the author, to the point where I just have to put them down.  And then there are overly ambitious, bloated literary messes (cliché…cliché…touché…) that I…just…can’t…pick up.

Then there’s the golden rule that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  Or by its title.  But that’s just what I was doing when wandering through an abnormally large and sanitized Barnes and Noble at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on no mission other than killing time when I came across Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night.  Cool title.  Cool cover.  What’s this all about, eh?  I bought it on impulse.

Norwegian by Night

And now I can say with cool confidence, you can judge a book by its cover, and I COULDN’T PUT THIS BOOK DOWN!  For those keeping track, the last book I couldn’t put down was Ron Rash’s Serena.  I ransacked Miller’s debut tale in record time over the three-day Memorial Day weekend.  There’s nothing mind-blowing or revolutionary about Miller’s book, but like its cinematic cousin, Mud, which also contained a strong Huck Finn motif, it represents good old-fashioned storytelling bravado:  Simple.  Layered.  Sympathetic characters with complete and satisfying arcs.  Interesting setting.  Good story.  Well told. Continue reading

What We Talk About When We Talk About Cloud Atlas

It’s like Metropolis meets The Matrix meets Magnolia meets The Road meets Star Trek meets Leprechaun meets yadda yadda yadda…ya dig?

Ahhhh…remember 1999?  It was sooooo cool to be a sophomore in college and watching movies, man…movies that spoke to my generation.  The old people just didn’t get it.  This was our time, and film was right there with us at the turn of the millennium saying, “Hey, ma!  Look at us!  We’re the first people to ever have these cool ideas!”  Of all the trailblazing films that came out that year, there are two that stick out in my mind the most as having been born of the moment – the Wachowskis’ The Matrix and Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run.  Both played with film convention while waxing about alternate realities and parallel lives, and at the time….THEY BLEW MY MIND.  Unfortunately The Matrix begat two mind-bogglingly awful sequels that tarnished the legacy of the original, and as gimmicky fun as Run Lola Run was, it just never really held up all that well.  Though I liked some of Tykwer’s later work (Perfume still has to be one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen and I was one of the few who liked The International), the Wachowskis completely imploded.  And as it turns out, all of those cool ideas were just rehashed from previous cool ideas.

Now thirteen years later after they appeared to be the second-coming of cinema only to crash and burn, the three have teamed up and concocted a dazzlingly ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell’s self-proclaimed unfilmable novel, Cloud Atlas – a nearly indescribable film that will infuriate those who allow it to while it should please those desiring to return to the bygone days of 1999.  So what do we talk about when we talk about Cloud Atlas? Continue reading

Coming Home in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Frank Money.  I can’t think of a better, more ironic, name for the hero of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home.  In only 148 short pages (somehow I picture Toni Morrison on that old game show Name that Tune proudly declaring, “I can name that tune in zero notes!” like she could divine what the song will be; and she herself does not waste a single note, syllable or word when she composes) she takes us Home – to an emotionally and psychologically damaged Korean war vet trying to find his way back to Georgia to rescue his little sister from some deep trouble.  More so than any past novels, this one is about as straightforward and accessible as a Morrisonian narrative can get, though there’s a brilliant little conceit where between chapters Frank Money is speaking directly to Morrison and reveals some gut-wrenching secrets.

As she paints for us Frank Money’s journey, Morrison gives us glimpses into the lives and mindsets of people marginalized by society and peppers her tale with those signature Morrison observations, including one passage that playfully argues the only logical response to Truman dropping that atom bomb was for the subculture to create bebop and scat.  There’s also a great little episode where Frank Money is taken in for the night by a good Samaritan whose young son (a precocious and determined math wiz) interrogates Frank about his time in Korea and ultimately how if felt to kill a man, and how Frank’s responses color the boy’s view of this strange guest in his house.  The boy’s “deep” his father had warned Frank…but when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy responds to Frank succinctly, “A man.” (pg 33) Continue reading