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:
“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.
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.
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
Our sweet-natured, sad-soul heroine Laurel anticipating her life to begin after a string of bad luck toiling away in the gloaming of the titular cove. Waiting for love to find her.
Hank, Laurel’s brother who has returned home from Europe after losing his hand, newly betrothed and anticipating a fresh life to begin outside of the shadow of his cursed homestead.
The handsome flute-playing mute named Walter who finds his way into the cove and into Laurel’s heart always looking over his shoulder anticipating his good luck to run out and his past (and the authorities) to catch up to him.
A nation anticipating their native sons to return from a war-torn Europe to safer shores.
The reader anticipating something…anything…interesting to happen in Ron Rash’s lukewarm but evocative Southern-spun WWI-era gothic romance. Don’t worry…it does…eventually.
It’s telling that Rash would follow-up his masterpiece, Serena, with a novel drenched in atmosphere and taking place in a gloomy hollow, eternally in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains (the same mountains where in Serena the Pemberton timber empire loomed ominously and supreme) which cast darkness on the hearts of the inhabitants there. It’s almost as if Serena Pemberton is casting the greatest shadow, as Rash will never be able to conjure a character to match her nor can one imagine a follow-up novel that could scale the same mythic heights. Continue reading →
My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England.
I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year. I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name. In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks.
The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti). The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst. Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Continue reading →
I pride myself on always finishing a book, no matter how arduous it is. There have been plenty of bad juju page-turners I’ve eagerly slogged through over the years…cough cough – The Da Vinci Code –cough cough – The Ruins. Hell, I even got through the vile piece of trash that was Clive Barker’s Mister B Gone. I don’t know if it’s the writer or the masochist in me – but I always finish a book.
Well…almost always. Some books I just can’t seem to pick up after putting them down – those anti page-turners. Some of these may actually be good books but just not my cup of tea, and I struggle to return to them when a Raymond Carver collection is sitting on my shelf or the latest issue of The New Yorker has just arrived.
Right now I’m suffering through a double whammy with two novels that couldn’t be farther apart in theme and style -Steve Earle’s new psychedelic Baby Boomer ode to the 1960’s, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; and the uber-classic big thick novel that is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Despite my most valiant efforts, I can’t seem to finish either one of them, and I fear they may join my short list of dun dun dun…. Continue reading →
After getting caught in an avalanche while on vacation at a French ski resort, Jake and Zoe dig out only to find a world empty and deserted…a silent land where “the laws of physics and the laws of dreaming meet” and where “horses shit rainbows.” No, I’m not kidding.
I don’t know why I always allow myself to be lured into these quasi-fantasy, quasi-apocalyptic, quasi-psychological tales where two people (in this case, a husband and wife) traverse through a mysterious and perhaps dangerous netherworld trying to prove their undying love for each other while struggling to maintain their sanity. This one even comes complete with a twist ending. Continue reading →
Tom Rachman’s debut novel, The Imperfectionists, reads like a collection of short stories, each one focusing on a different character swirling around in the soon to be ashes of an international English-language newspaper based in Rome. At the end of each episode, Rachman reports in brief serialized fashion on the origins of the paper, a noble but doomed-to-fail experiment, and its different near-deaths over the years before instant-globalization and access to news through the internet put the final nail in its coffin. What he achieves is a series of love songs (some better composed than others) serenading a dead media: the newspaper…romantic, archaic, quaint…obsolete. Continue reading →