Friday, August 21, 2009

Yukon, Ho!

Miss L and I are off to Alaska. Or, to be more precise, we will be by tomorrow morning. Between the trip and the big pile of books I'm taking I should have a lot to write about and share. I'll update if I can, but internet access as I understand it will be expensive. Next update, at the latest, on 9/1. Until next time....


Review: The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo

The normal way to review a book is to summarize its plot---or at least its hook---and then detail what you like and don't like. Well, for Nicholas Pekearo's first novel The Wolfman I'm going to focus on voice.


Oh sure, I could tell you that The Wolfman is a fast-paced thriller mixing supernatural horror with gritty crime noir. I could even tell you the hook: Marlowe Higgins----Vietnam Vet, frycook, recovering alcoholic and werewolf----uses the curse of his monthly transformation to hunt down and kill a supremely bad person each month. But instead of my yammering lets look at the opening lines of the novel:

Let me paint a picture for you: The full moon was bulbous and yellow like the blind and rotted eye of a witch that peered down from the murky sky with bad intentions, and a million little stars shone down on the sleepy Southern town of Evelyn. The breeze was gentle and cool, carrying on it the scent of flowers and wet earth from the recent rain spell. The only thing missing was the children singing hymns, and I'm sure it would have been enough to make someone happy to be alive. (11)

This, to me anyway, is a great opener. You can tell right away the narrator, who we learn very quickly is Marlowe, is a smart but cocky prick with an eye for detail like some creepy version of Arthur Dove. It continues with passages like these throughout the novel:

When I blew into Evelyn one night a few years earlier, I was still hitting the sauce pretty hard. I initially drank because it made it easier to deal with being what I had become, but there came a point when I kind of accepted that part of myself, or at least became very stoic in a Marcus Aurelius kind of way. Still, I drank heavily when the mood struck me, and that mood usually urged me to go into a watering hole and pick a fight with somebody. I had a very wild hair growing in a very itchy place, and, to me, bars were made for two distinct purposes: for fisticuffs and to pick up broads. (41-42)

The Neo-Chandler voice intensifies here; with this little paragraph we learn our hero is not only smart, but well read. Not only cocky, but a tough guy constantly on the prowl for a fight. And he tops it all off with a bit of a dark sense of humor. To be honest, the voice really carries the book. As a mystery, the plot is very predictable. The secondary characters----which is pretty much everyone save Marlowe---are very thin. The werewolf mythology is vague, a little confusing and even a touch contradictory in parts.

But I loved this anyway. Marlowe lives in these pages, and that's something that only comes from real writing talent and passion. It's also why it's so sad that Pekearo died prior to seeing his first novel in print. We'll never really know what he could have done, and I find that incredibly sad.

So if you are intrigued by these passages, read some other reviews to get the plot. Or even better, pick up the book itself. It's worth it.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crazy Note Found Taped to a Bookcart At Work

I love finding ephemera. You know what I mean----those random bits of flotsam and jetsam that give you the barest glimpse into someone's life. Pieces of toys, bookmarks, old pencils, half-xeroxed pages. But nothing's better than a good old fashioned letter. Yesterday one of my co-workers found this letter---or part of a letter really---taped to a bookcart in the library. We have no idea who wrote it, nor why someone taped it to a bookcart. Any weird spellings are from the letter itself, and not my sloppy typing. I swear.

Cap'n + Bosco go way back to Basic Training for Federation Army. Bosco was conscripted Cap'n volunteered. They both became disallusioned very quickly when the War against the Independants, Bosco refused to fight and kill and became a pacifist and Cap'n refused to fire on a pro-independance rally and was dishonorably discharged. Cap'n and Bosco met up at a bar + discussed their future. Cap'n said he had a job for Bosco on a shop. He left out the fact that it had yet to be stolen.

It was a typical salvage job---old models of ships + sell them at auction. The ships were stored in an impound lot, the lot that Murdock + Bosco would steal the Daedalus from.

That's all there is. The first paragraph was on the front, the 2nd short paragraph on the back. Although they had more room on both sides they just stopped writing. I don't know if this is real or if it is fiction, but either way it's great. It's moments like this that I really love my job.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I can't think of any other book people have asked me about at the library this summer more than Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The idea is captivating---in a perverse stare-at-the-car-wreck-as-you-drive-by kind of way. I'm sure I'm being asked because I've become known as the horror guy at work, but this book has received a shocking level of press, both good and bad. And I have to say, it's not as bad as you might think, but it's also not as good as you might think.


The idea itself is pretty simple---use the story of Austen's classic novel as a foundation for a zombie horror tale. The familiar characters are all there: the annoying Bennets, strong-willed Elizabeth and even darkly mysterious Mr. Darcy. But zombies---and later ninjas----abound, crashing through windows, breaking down doors and eating plenty of brains. The characters have been played with a bit to accommodate this terrible world. Elizabeth isn't just a strong women---she, and all the women, are highly-trained zombie killers fast with the daggers. It works out to something oddly funny and cartoony, especially at moments when Zombies burst onto the scene right after a very Victorian conversation of manners and romance. It comes together as something you shake your head and laugh at. Not because you think it's riotously funny, but because you can't believe someone put this all together into a novel.


The idea of merging two very different forms is nothing new. Jonathan Lethem did it early in his career when he merged Raymond Chandler with Philip K Dick in Gun With Occasional Music. Kathy Acker did it with books like her Great Expectations by merging the Dicken's classic with pornography, poetry and horror. And of course William S. Burroughs based his whole career on it, by merging anything and everything he ever read----sci fi, westerns, high literature, gay porn---into everything he wrote. While I love all of these books, there's something missing for me with Grahame-Smith.

Part of it is a lack of writing mechanics. Grahame-Smith didn't just lift characters and scenery for his book, he lifted whole phrases, lines and even paragraphs from Austen's novel. Some of the reviews I've read refer to this style as a "literary-mashup", I guess giving a nod to those dj's who will spin two or more music tracks together so they'll line up and play off of each other. When it works it's a lot of fun, but when it doesn't work the missed beats and odd blends of melody make you cringe. This is much the same way. Grahame-Smith is pretty good with the dialogue, not surprising since it's already been put into development as a movie----but his descriptions lack the poetic flair Austen wrote with.

I also wanted more from the horror----more blood, more scares, more blood, more ham-fisted political commentary, more blood, more something to make this something stronger than just a satiric romp and yes, even more blood. That said, it's still a fun and fast read and if you go in with an open mind and fair-to-middlin' expectations you'll have fun with it.

If you end up liking it, I have good news. With Vampire Darcy's Desire, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, there are A LOT of imitators coming up over the next year. If you don't like it, I have good news for you, too. This is sure to be a passing fad that will fade away in a couple of years----or even less. Just close your eyes as you walk by the displays in the bookstores and you'll be fine.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Car, A Truck and Two Books

I had two near-misses in my car on my way home from work last night. The first happened just a few minutes after leaving work.

I was cruising east down Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield. It's a major 4 lane road for the area and the road widens to even more lanes as you get close to the highway ramps. Once I hit the section where things widen the little compact Honda in the lane next to me decided it wanted to merge its rear end with my front end. I tapped my horn and the driver did what I probably would have done----floored it and then zipped into the lane right in front of me.

The 2nd happened about an hour later; I was zooming north on I-95 and passing the exit for Columbia, Md. In this case I was in the 2nd right-hand lane and a truck was merging onto the highway from the access ramp. The trouble occurred when the truck kept on moving into my lane. If I hadn't slammed on my brakes he would have knocked my poor little Mazda Protege right off the road.

I didn't get mad either time; I know these drivers didn't do on purpose, they just didn't see me. But the experience dropped a story idea into my head. In kind of a Twilight Zone meets Kafka kind of thing, I imagined a main character who, all of sudden, no one ever notices. He doesn't become invisible or ghostly----people just stop noticing him. How that would shape, and probably destroy, his life? It will probably be some time before I get to this one but I think it has some real creepy possibilities.

Completely unrelated, but before all this traffic madness happened I stopped by a bookstore to pick up the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice. While it was a little strange that I got the only copy they had in the store, at least the results where better than when his last novel came out and I couldn't find a store in a 15 mile radius that even had it on order. The cover looks like a lost Jimmy Buffet album, but based on the description it sounds like it will be a fun romp through the 1960's.


I also picked up a copy of Don Quixote that I found on the store's discount table. I've been meaning to read it for a long time and for some reason it's been coming up in conversation a lot lately. Late this month Miss L and I are taking a trip up to Alaska, so I think these will be the two books---along with the most recent issues of Gargoyle and McSweeney's---- I'll pack to keep me occupied on the plane and boat.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Review: Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme

Back in the late 1960's and up through the 1980's, it would have been hard to pick up an issue of the New Yorker that did not contain work or at least a mention of Donald Barthelme. One of the great experimental writers of his day, he also managed to breach through and gain a level of mainstream popularity. Now readers can finally get a thorough look at his often guarded life with Tracy Daugherty's thoughtful and beautifully written biography Hiding Man.

hiding man

Son of a successful architect, Barthelme grew up in Houston, TX on the fringes of the mainstream literary and artistic world. While there he fell in love with adventure tales like Sabatini's Captain Blood and humor by writers like James Thurber and SJ Perelman. His father pushed him into the more esoteric influences of Surrrealism, Rabelais and others. After a stint in college----Barthelme never actually graduated----he worked for art galleries and as a newspaper man before following his ambitions in his early twenties to become part of the New York writing scene.

What follows after this intro to Barthelme's life is a grand tour of his work and how his life intersected with it. The main trouble with trying to read Barthelme today is that his work---especially his late 60's and early 70's writings----is very much of the time and understanding it today can be difficult. Daughtery carefully lays out the influences----both literary and worldly----making this a must-read volume for anyone who has troubles understanding why we still need to read Barthelme. Daugherty admits early on to his personal history with DB----he was a student of his and seemed to stay in good touch with him afterward----but Daugherty still manages to develop a fairly balanced book by including positive and negative views on Barthelme's life and work.

Hiding Man extends well beyond Barthelme's own writing. Barthelme not only published some innovative fiction but also managed to exercise a profound influence on literature in general through his involvement with P.E.N., various awards committees and teaching. In one way or another he was an influence on Grace Paley, Thomas Pynchon, Vikram Chandra, Philip Lopate, and many many more.

I first discovered Barthelme reading the anthology After Yesterday's Crash; although Barthelme doesn't have any work in the book, he's referred to several times in Larry McCaffery's introduction. From there I picked up used copies of his collections The Teachings of Don B and City Life as well as Snow White, his first and still probably best known novel. Full of lists, Q & A's, strange bits of dialogue and collages that really pushed against the walls of what fiction can be, I loved his work at first. But by the time I got to Snow White I found the ideas behind these tricks and techniques at their best dated and at their worst empty. It's the later sections of Hiding Man that detail Barthelme's writing career and his desire to not just be an iconoclast but also a great writer that I found more interesting. His work becomes more personal with novels like The Dead Father and more outspoken politically with short story collections like Overnight to Many Distant Cities. I'm very curious to give some of these other ideas a try.

Well written and thoughtful, I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in postmodern fiction, literary history or even someone just looking for a unique biography.