A Good Old-Fashioned Read

An older work, though quite a popular one still in our store, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn offers a satisfying experience even to a reader of twenty-first century sensibilities. While many of the details in Betty Smith’s tale are of course outdated, it is a mistake to dismiss it somehow as merely quaint. The world it describes so vividly may have disappeared, but the themes it grapples with and the struggles it relates are universal–can be seen as independent of time and place.

                Written in the nineteen-forties, but depicting events taking place from about 1900 to 1918, the book stands as an utterly convincing portrayal of poor immigrant life–tenement life–in New York City’s most populous borough during that earlier period. In particular it is the story of the Nolans, a loving if often desperately strapped family, the parents first-generation Americans of Irish and German origin, respectively. The main protagonist is Francie, the oldest of the Nolan children through whom the story is mostly told and whose coming of age is the book’s primary subject. She is precocious and fiercely ambitious, and her model is pretty clearly Smith herself.

                The story involves a number of different immigrant communities coexisting side by side in the Brooklyn of the period, and the author shows no compunction about indulging in ethnic stereotypes. The Irish are sentimental but shiftless. Laborers in most cases, they can be bar-owners. Germans are cold and unyielding. They are butchers and delicatessen-owners. Italians appear in the story as organ-grinders and street entertainers, and sometimes are the butt of jokes. Jews are shopkeepers, and they are calculating. In a cringe-producing reference, the Nolans for special occasions always buy “Jew bread”–i.e., rye bread. Blacks do not appear at all.

                Yet there is little malice in the stereotypes. What comes through instead is the commonality of the various groups, all of them underdogs. Life is stacked against everyone in the Nolans’ world, there’s no getting around the fact. At the same time, however, and Smith seems eager to offer this up as a countervailing fact, it is America and there is the certainty (not just the possibility) that any group (any white group, I suppose I should stipulate) will improve its socio-economic lot in the course of a mere generation or two.

                By the end of the book, when Francie is just eighteen (and going away to college!), it has become clear that she is indeed moving up in the world. I think also it is a safe bet that she will one day, like her creator, be a writer. The experiences of her childhood which we as readers have been immersed in for three hundred-some pages would then become material for the stories she would write: the hardships, the small moments of joy, and most especially the indelible characters.

                The list would start with her father, Johnny Nolan. He is handsome, charming, feckless, a bit of a rogue, and Francie loves him completely. He has the Irishman’s gift of gab and a sweet singing voice. In fact, he makes his living, such as it is, as a singing waiter. Because of his fondness for drink, however, he misses out on a lot of jobs. Eventually his unreliability costs him his place in the waiters’ union. Johnny is one of four boys, and the only one to make it to thirty-five years of age (which he does just barely).

                Francie’s mother is made of sterner stuff. Katie Nolan (nee Rommely) was married at seventeen and a mother at eighteen, and her life has been defined by hard work and sacrifice. Still a young woman when the story takes place, she hasn’t lost her looks, except that her hands show the accumulated damage from years of scrubbing floors for a living. She has a fierce pride in her self-sufficiency and refuses charity, even when it is offered by a family member. Although she loves Francie, Katie often knocks heads with her, the daughter being too much like the mother, and Francie’s younger brother Neeley is her favorite. Francie knows this and accepts it. She loves her brother too, who is a sweet boy with a gift for music like his father.

                Of the various aunts and uncles, Aunt Sissy stands out. The eldest of Katie’s three sisters, she never learned to read and write because when her parents came to this country from Austria they didn’t know there was such a thing as free public education. Some think Sissy bad because she has a habit of marrying serial husbands (each of whom she calls “John” regardless of their actual names) without the formality of divorce. But she is also good, the Nolans would say, because she is big-hearted and life-affirming. She suffers a total of ten miscarriages with the various Johns. While with the last one (whose real name is Steve), she arranges to surreptitiously adopt a baby from a young pregnant girl and raise it as her own. For months, although she never shows any signs, she pretends to be pregnant herself. Then after going away for a couple of days, she appears baby in hand, claiming to have borne it in the interval. Everyone is stunned into accepting, in fact half believing, her story.

                There is a beat cop and Tammany Hall functionary named McShane who has always looked after the Nolans, helping them out discretely when he could. Eventually (this is near the end of the novel) he turns his attentions, and intentions, toward Katie specifically and will become the means by which the family escapes poverty for good. Francie has a beau of her own at this point, although she is not convinced they have a future together because she worries that he is a little too sure of himself.

                It is Francie who is the most compelling character of all. While hailing from the humblest of backgrounds, she is inquisitive and resourceful even as a young girl. She is keen to learn about the neighborhood, about people, about books. Accompanied in this as in other schemes by Neeley, she gathers scrap metal to sell to the junkman for a few pennies that she then gives to her mother.  When she is fourteen or fifteen she poses as eighteen in order to get a good-paying office job in Manhattan, becoming then the main breadwinner in the family for several years. By the final chapters we see her, the beneficiary of not only her own hard work but the assistance of others including Ben, the beau, having gained a hard-earned worldliness. Humble is not a word that occurs to us now as we read about developments in Francie’s life. She may not be as sure of herself as Ben, but she is confident in the future course of her life. Words like indomitable and resilient do come to mind, for she is like that tree that some call the Tree of Heaven, the one that literally grows out of concrete and is all but indestructible.

                As many have noted over the years, Betty Smith has captured here the sense of real life being lived, in a novel rich in the elements of universal experience. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains relevant because within the compass of its characters is all of humanity.   4/5 stars.

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Take a Ride on The Underground Railroad for a “Conversation with History”

Schoolchildren, when they learn of the Underground Railroad, sometimes picture an actual train on actual tracks beneath the ground—a sort of subway. When I first became aware of The Underground Railroad, a few years back, the pre-Civil War era novel having made quite a splash in the publishing world at the time, and was given further to understand it concerned a literal underground railroad, a long-distance subway for escaping slaves, I assumed it must be a book for kids.

The author, I guessed, had decided he could most effectively reach his young readership, and best show the determination and courage not only of those fleeing bondage for freedom in the North, but of those who helped them in their flight, by making the means of their escape a conveyance that was not a metaphor.

That misimpression had been dispelled by the time I got around myself to reading Colson Whitehead’s book; I was no longer expecting a simplistic but instructive tale geared toward juveniles. I knew the train in the story was nothing like, say, the Polar Express, and was a vehicle somehow for surveying America’s dark racist past—even perhaps its present. The novel’s protagonist may be a girl barely in her teens, but I would learn in short order it explored the weightiest of adult themes, albeit displaying as well what I have come to know is Whitehead’s trademark affinity for the fantastic.

While the events it describes are deadly serious and have without question the ring of historical truth, it showcases, however improbably, a Swiftian inventiveness and Marquez-like make-believe. This mixture indeed ought not to work—only it does. Thanks to the author’s consummate skill in weaving together the disparate threads of his ingenious conception, and as a storyteller plain and simple, there is very little willing required of the reader to suspend his or her disbelief.

Whitehead’s central conceit of the train is able to serve, then, as a device to send his protagonist, Cora, like Lemuel Gulliver on a journey to a series of fanciful worlds starkly different one from the next. In this case, those worlds are the successive states the Underground Railroad passes through in its progress north, each of which has been radically reimagined so as to represent or illustrate a possible state of race relations, a particular manifestation of white supremacy, a specific brand of racial oppression.  With its numerous anachronisms—the unnamed South Carolina city where Cora spends an interval features, for example, a twelve-story skyscraper, complete with elevator, whose top floors house the headquarters of the quasi-governmental organization charged with “negro uplift” in the state along with facilities, dependent on technology borrowed from the twentieth century, for performing medical procedures which were unknown in the eighteen-fifties–Whitehead’s alternative history has a steam punk feel to it at times. He is a master of genre blending, making Cora’s an odyssey in time as well as space. First and foremost, though, The Underground Railroad is a taut and compelling adventure story, a harrowing tale of inhuman cruelty, unceasing peril, and survival against all odds.

Cora’s story, even while the implacable forces aligned against her and the unrelenting adversity she confronts almost defy reason, strikes me as entirely credible. And Cora herself is a fully realized, three-dimensional character. Others among the cast, it must be noted by contrast, are to a degree types and without much depth. But it is impossible to count any lack of development in its characters as a serious flaw in a book with such a strong allegorical component.

In a talk he gave in 2019 at Rutgers University, Camden, Whitehead said he had first had the idea for the book that eventually became The Underground Railroad some two decades before, when he was just starting out as a writer. He put the idea on the back burner to percolate while he pursued other projects. Having been a fan as a kid of fantasy literature, sci-fi, and shows like The Twilight Zone which took the bizarre and added it to ordinary life to potent effect, he has tried his hand at genre fiction on occasion in his writing career. His debut novel in 1999 was a speculative work which Time magazine called the best “racial allegory” since Ralph Ellison. His 2011 book, Zone One, was a post-apocalyptic zombie novel.

Finally, six or seven years ago—encouraged, he said, by his wife—he decided he was ready to take up the Underground Railroad project. In preparation, he read a number of slave narratives to gain a fuller idea of what life was life for blacks on plantations in the Deep South. And because he not only meant to depict slavery as the abomination it was, but wanted as well “to have a conversation with history,” he made further researches into the litany, and legacy, of wrongs done to nonwhites in America since the country’s founding.  

The book he wound up with, as has been seen, is both realistic and fantastic. In the Q and A part of that talk at Rutgers, someone brought up Magical Realism, and Whitehead responded that he admired how Gabriel Garcia Marquez alternated so effectively between the two, adding that he was honored even to be mentioned in the same breath as the Colombian Nobel laureate.

As for the “conversation with history” the novel attempts—a grownup conversation to be sure—I can state with certainty that the reader—the sophisticated reader—will find it worth heeding and joining in.

4/5 stars.

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Something Splendid This Way Comes

How on earth did I miss Ray Bradbury?

Growing up, I was introduced to the science fiction and fantasy literary genres mainly through recommendations from family and friends; recommendations like: Frank Herbert, J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Jules Verne, Aldous Huxley, and Mervyn Peake, but, somehow, Ray Bradbury never found his way into the mix.

I knew of Bradbury, of course. I knew he wrote a book about censorship, and the screenplay for an episode of The Twilight Zone which I never liked very much. But that was about all I knew. And so, as far as I was concerned, Bradbury was probably a B-class writer of boring and mildly cheesy sci-fi books. Not really worth much of my time, in other words.

And that would’ve been that, if not for a raggedy old copy of Fahrenheit 451 I found in my bookcase a few months ago while searching for something new to read. I’m not even entirely sure how it got there (I’m one of those people who accumulate books and justify it by telling myself I’ll read them “someday”) but, since it was handy and I was fairly desperate for reading material, I decided to give it a shot.

I approached Fahrenheit 451 with an open mind but mostly with low expectations, anticipating something interesting, probably predictable and a little dated, but hopefully fun. Yet, within the first few chapters, it became obvious that I was in the hands of a capable storyteller. At the final showdown between Montag and Captain Beatty, I audibly gasped. The ensuing chase and mysterious ending of the novel I devoured in a single, fevered sitting. By the end of the book I was utterly stunned. 

How on earth did I miss Ray Bradbury? Why hadn’t anyone told me how good this was? Probably someone did, but I couldn’t get that episode of The Twilight Zone out of my head, I suppose. Well, shame on me.

Needless to say, I was enchanted, and so I did what any self-respecting reader would do after discovering an author: I went to the library. 

Truth be told, I was looking for The Martian Chronicles but alas, they had it not. I was left, then, with a choice between a hefty tome of Bradbury’s short fiction and a slim-ish novel with a wicked title and a wicked dust jacket cover. I settled for the latter, and so, carried home with me Something Wicked This Way Comes.

I dove into the novel with very different expectations than my previous Bradbury voyage. I approached it with a certain child-likeness, a wonder and willingness to be awed, but I was yet still unprepared for what followed. 

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story about two 13-year-old boyhood friends, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, living in Small-Town-USA (Green Town to be exact, a recurring location in several Bradbury stories) and their encounter, one week in late October, with a traveling carnival of secret and malevolent supernatural power. 

The inhabitants of this carnival seem, at first, to be merely eccentric, harmless, and entertaining. But our boys suspect otherwise and, after several midnight investigations, echoing the best of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the boys make a startling discovery: indeed, there’s more than meets the eye to this carnival, and the price of admission might just be your soul. Along the way we meet a gothic rogues gallery of freaks, a hellish hall of mirrors, a carousel of dreadful power, a hapless father who might just save the day, and a downright diabolical villain, illustrated in tattoos of ghosts and tormented souls; the leader of The Freaks, The Autumn People – one Mr. Dark. And so, the boys begin a foray to save the town (and themselves) from a dark force which feeds off their deepest fears and worst inclinations.  

Now, at first glance, this synopsis seems devilishly intriguing, but in the hands of a lesser power, such a story could easily stray into adolescent silliness, or worse: maudlin predictability 

But in the hands of Ray Bradbury, the fantastical elements are merely a means to an end, a vehicle in which to carry the reader towards a profound look into the human experience; what it means to grow up, what it means to be a friend, and even what it means to live and die. It is a story of lust and temptation, acceptance and redemption, youth and old age, Light and Dark. And, yes, there’s an evil carnival in it too.

There is much of the novel worth highlighting, too much, really, for this short review. But the tale of Will and Jim is essential. Their changing relationship to each other is nuanced and thoughtful. We endure their failings and foibles, their innocence and loss of innocence, and watch as they simultaneously grow closer together and yet further apart. There’s a sense of initiation taking place, a painful and undesired shedding of boyhood into adulthood. But a sweetness remains, even unto the end.

Then there’s the entire cast of freaks and ghouls of the carnival, which are the source for much of the novel’s shocking elements of genuine horror. From the sickening descriptions of Mr. Electrico to the disturbing absurdity of the Dwarf, the carnival freaks get under your skin and remain there, like a tick, mostly unwanted. 

But most unwanted of all is Mr. Dark himself, unrivaled in his dreadfulness. He is a true villain for the ages, an archetype, perhaps, for the devil himself (or itself), and one which will likely stay with you long after you’ve closed the book. There are many moments where he seems less like a flesh and blood character and more like a half-remembered nightmare, but for me the most visceral scene is when he encounters the boys in the library. It’s wicked.

Bradbury’s prose must also be mentioned. It is one of sweeping, dark beauty, breathtaking, weird, sumptuous, synesthetic, and even, at times, avant-garde. It is rich in metaphor, pregnant with portents, and bafflingly descriptive. Nothing escapes his eye, from the red and white pole of a barber shop to the final moments of Mr. Electrico, he finds unconventional ways to describe anything and everything, leaving the reader, at times, almost overwhelmed. To be sure, it is challenging, but if endured it rewards the reader with moments of penetrating and long-lasting clarity. He weaves effortlessly through whatever genre the moment calls for and defies categorization. Is the book Fantasy? Horror? Science Fiction? Tragedy? High Adventure? Symbolic Drama? Religious Art? Magical Realism? Mythic Fairy Tale? Psychoanalysis? The answer is: yes.

But for me, the greatest surprise of the novel is Will’s reclusive and aimless father: Charles Halloway. I read in awe as Bradbury changed him from a listless, impotent shadow to Hero, Holy Fool, and Great Initiator of the boys. He is like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and is alone worth the cost of the book. The several passages between him and his son Will possess a tenderness and gentleness which brought me to tears on several occasions. As the father of a young boy, I was probably primed for such a reaction, but still, I say Charles Halloway steals the show. The final 50 pages or so, starting with the “World Famous Bullet Trick”, are absolutely thrilling, unpredictable, and might have you standing up and cheering for him. I was.

The novel also boasts one of the most iconic and satisfying endings I’ve ever read. But this is no “Happily Ever After” style ending, these are not anemic platitudes or sleepy cliches. Bradbury’s writing, in all its complexities and strident colors, still remains concerned with reality. He flexes his muscular imagination and plays with the painful ironies and paradoxes of life, ending up, unexpectedly, with something like faith, hope, and love. The book doesn’t have a triumphant ending, it merely ends in the midst of a triumph, small in the grand scheme of things, but transformational nonetheless. This is fantasy for grown-ups, a rare gem, perhaps, amidst a landscape mostly of common quartz.

Now this is not to say that I found the novel to be entirely without its flaws. As mentioned above, the style of prose, although truly beautiful in it’s own right, can often be confusing and may prevent those with little taste for poetry to understandably abandon ship early on. I also would’ve liked a little more time dedicated to Jim Nightshade. His motivations felt unclear to me and vaguely one-dimensional. And the sequence between Will and the Witch riding in a hot air balloon battling on a rooftop left me bewildered and more than a little disoriented. But a case could be made against these criticisms, and I have a sense that they have more to do with user-error rather than the shortcomings of Mr. Bradbury. 

Ultimately, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a work of High Art, a modern and mythic tale of Good against Evil, but one which never slides into sophomoric dualism. It’s, instead, the kind of art which is true, honest, pure, just, lovely, and of good report. Art that is worth your time and might even be good for your soul. I give it a very high recommendation, 4.5 out of 5 stars.

In closing, the question remains: How on Earth did I miss Ray Bradbury these 37 years? Maybe I was living in The Twilight Zone. That would explain a lot. 

And now…on to The Martian Chronicles…

4.5/5 Stars.

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The Last Kingdom is the last time I’ll think a book is worth reading just because it’s a Netflix series—

Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom is a tale of Viking campaigns with an accompanying Netflix show to its pedigree, and prior to reading struck me as a fun historical departure from the usual suspects of my reading given that the Danish conquests, medieval culture, and the war craft of the period in general has fascinated me since I was a kid. If you’d asked me—shortly after I’d found a Norseman coloring book (lots of red crayon)—what I wanted to be when I grew up I would have said I wanted to be a Viking.

            Contrary to my childhood fantasies, The Last Kingdom fell short of my expectations for two major reasons which both find their root in my contention that authors who consistently write in a specific genre are able to manifest a novel of out of leftover dross from previous works:  

            1) The story is narrated in first person point-of-view (POV) by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. I have zero issue with first person POV, but in the case of a sweeping epic, first person POV cannot leave its teller’s body and so becomes small. Also known as, less epic. The result is a structural paradox which reading experience has proven doesn’t often work. Alternatively, when a story can move around and go into different characters’ heads, it is able to cover a wider, more epic scope which is why so many major epic tales such as Lord of the Rings, Dune, Le Morte D’Arthur, The Wheel of Time, Narnia, Beowulf (a Danish mythology, no less) are all told in the third person POV. As with everything, there are exceptions, but the first person POV fails The Last Kingdom in another way.

The inherent strength of first person POV is that while the outside world narrows, the reader becomes privy to the widening introspective world—witness to the emotions, thoughts, of the narrator. Well, either Uhtred is a psychopath (not improbable based on some textual evidence), or Cornwell forgot to include any emotion because it’s not there. As a nine year old, Uhtred watches his brother, then his father be slaughtered (it’s not a spoiler), and then expresses the equivalent amount of grief that I would have if someone told me my pet rock died. And he’s not compartmentalizing. His motivations are constantly unclear because he doesn’t think, only acts, which makes for a one-dimensional, unsympathetic protagonist.

            2) When you read a newspaper article you (are supposed to) get a reporting of the facts. Because facts are to the point, they are sparse. This can make the reading dry, but it is not intended to entertain, only to inform. Conversely, sweeping epics are supposed to sweep, to sprawl, to somersault and get stuck in the minutia briar patch as the author gets lost in the world he or she has created—and all the while entertain.

            Uhtred (via Cornwell) does not sweep, sprawl, or somersault. Apart from the final 6-8 pages, the story reads as if Cornwell submitted a thorough outline to his publisher and they told him, “Hey, know what? You have a big enough fan base. Why fritter away another six months fleshing out this outline when we can publish as-is and have the second installment released by then?” There’s no meat, no depth, no stewing over minor details to build a world worth spending more time in. The whole thing reads like a cobbled summary from the research of other projects.

            In rare form, maybe the show is better than the book? For me, however, the epic of Uhtred ends here. 1.5/5 stars.

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Walking Plants and Cannibal Bats is How I’ll Remember 2020…oh, and the alien invasion a little later in the year—

triffid

I’ve been a sucker for stories about survival dating all the way back to My Side of the Mountain and Slake’s Limbo in elementary school. I mean, what kid—and possibly what adult—wouldn’t want to eek out a modest but endlessly innovative life in a hollowed out tree or the crevice of an unfinished New York City subway tunnel? Especially in the year of 2020, both of these options feel like viable ways to escape the present onslaught of disasters.

More than simply running away, however, what I appreciate most in these kinds of stories is how character(s) survive in the midst of the terrors as Bill Masen does in John Wyndham’s classic pulp novel The Day of the Triffids. When most of the world goes blind after watching a cosmic light show, the semi-sentient Triffid plant life steps (they can walk) to center stage to assert its dominion. Bill Masen is one of the few to escape with his sight and he, any others that can see, and so many scores who can’t are forced to plot, plan, and engineer the survival of the human race in the age of the triffid.

Did anyone except me ever see that campy horror movie Bats? The premise was largely the same: bloodthirsty and genetically-mutated-way-smarter-than-your-average bats decide to go on a rampage and it’s up some bat expert and local authorities to quell the uprising. It was not good. I don’t even like horror movies and yet my adolescent-self loved this movie. In the penultimate scene, the cast bunkers down in a school to await the bat-battalion. To prevent the bats from smashing through the pane glass and devouring every human within, the cast wraps chain-link fences over the windows, clips on jumper cables, and plugs them into the generator. Voila! Time to electrocute bats. Let me say, my excitement was not about abusing winged mammals, but about the innovation requisite for survival: I think about this scene, from twenty years ago, regularly.

To that end, I predict I would be one of the first people dead in any of these situations because I’m not that clever. And maybe that’s another reason I enjoy books like this—there’s a vicarious relationship. I could also say, in the case of Triffids, Wyndham is pointing a subtler finger at humanities’ propensity to revert back to primitive and barbaric modes reminiscent of Darwin (survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, only the strong survive) and alluding to the uncaring, compassionless animal nature imbedded in us which, unleashed at a moment’s notice will gladly dispense with the life of a fellow human if only it means I can eat for one more day.

But… I still like the survival angle. I’ve also had occasion to think the 1930s-50s pulp mag content was fun but poorly written, but not true here. Fun and well-written. So when you need someone else’s life to be worse off than your own for a little perspective on how good—in spite of all the circumstances we find ourselves currently enduring—you might still have it, definitely check out Triffids. 4/5 stars.

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A Chasm Within Sanderson’s Elantris Causes a Fissure of Confusion

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Brandon Sanderson is the hottest thing going in fantasy right now. Patrick Rothfuss might be if he ever released the third installment of the Kingkiller Chronicle, but since we’d all be dead if we were holding our breaths, I’ll stay with Sanderson. I’ve made previous claims to my aversion of series due to the commitment finishing one takes, so his standalone Elantris was an easy choice.

A locus of magic and authority possessed by its occupants, Elantris was once the city of the gods. Now, a decade after their aonic (rune) power has fled—the city is in ruins and the gods turned to wretches. Anyone displaying the mottled stain of Reod (a perverse Elantrian appearance) is considered cursed and cast out from civilization. The three intertwining stories of Prince Raoden, Princess Sarene, and Gyorn Hrathen tell the story of how Elantris fell, the consequences it has wrought, and the eventual hope of its return (or destruction) to bring about salvation.

To ensure I don’t ramble too much, I’d like to make several cogent points and then allow anyone who wants to weigh in do so. That said, this is probably for people who have already read the book. So *SPOILER ALERT* on #5 and #6!:

1) Based on the popular opinion of other works by Sanderson, he is most known for his world building. That is the case here. He creates a diverse civilization and several cultures complete with their own unique religions, politics, and histories.

2) The story alternates between the point of views of three characters. This method told the story more completely—it would be a different story (or the understanding of it would be different if only told from one character’s POV). Despite knowing that, I sometimes felt it made the narrative a little jarring and possibly garrulous. This leads into point number three.

3) I’ve stated on many occasions that few books deserve to be longer than 500 pages. In the case of Elantris, the rule holds. There were places in the alternating point of views where there was little progression in the story (and basically a rehash of what the previous POV character had already understood). My argument is that more crucial elements could have been explained. For this reason I will concede that the page count could have exceeded 500 pages but within those pages greater tension was needed. A disclaimer: I am aware this was Sanderson’s first book, and he’s published about 50 in 13-14 years. If my math is correct, that’s 50 more than I’ve published. So. I get it.

4) Banter. Good banter can distinguish a novel in memory. I still recall lines of delectable quips from previous novels. However, certain banter can make me groan in its hokey childishness. It attempts to channel a kind of teenage awkwardness, but draws more attention to itself as an author trying to channel teenage awkwardness (and not succeeding). This happens a lot.

5) *Possible Spoiler Alert* The Pool. I didn’t have anything against its existence nor that when you threw an Elantrian in, he melted. But then Raoden trips in, and the water is somehow subservient to his will? Still nothing entirely wrong with this. But. Then. What was its purpose? Why did it exist? If there was a sequel to Elantris I would allow Sanderson the grace to explain then. But since there isn’t one (an e-book novella in a completely different part of the world doesn’t count) I’m not satisfied. Even if somebody says “oh well that’s explained in the greater scope of his Cosmere universe,” I retort that such an explanation is insufficient. But I would like answers if you have them!

6) *Possible Spoiler Alert* As Raoden is attempting to use the aons, he discovers that the aons match up with the physical landscape of the world, but an earthquake changed the landscape (creating a large chasm) and therefore changing how the power of the aons is activated. He begins adding in the “chasm” to his aon drawings and minimal power exudes. Then, at the book’s climax, he drags a branch across the landscape—and that somehow makes the chasm more defined to allow the full power of the aons to be used? A couple of things: first, wasn’t the chasm line already there due to the earthquake? And second, how can dragging a branch through the dirt be significant enough to “open” the totality of aonic power? Wheels on a horse drawn carriage could cause the same degree of markings and thus screw up the Elantrian power indefinitely and constantly for all time. What have I overlooked?

Let me end here because I want to make it clear Sanderson is a good writer. He’s a sincere talent in the world of SFF. But, also, I guess wanted more from him. Maybe that’s an unfair expectation, but I’m sticking to it.

3/5 stars (3.5 or higher is a recommend).

 

 

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Dine on Dandelion Wine

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One of his earliest novels, yet one of his best. Loosely autobiographical, Dandelion Wine also supports Bradbury’s rejection of his identity as a science fiction author, and instead focuses on the “fantastical and unreal.”

For Douglas Spaulding, 12, and his brother Tom, 9, summer vacation has just arrived in the quiet hamlet of Greentown, Illinois. The town, the world, the universe is theirs for the taking. And take it they do. In a dozen closely connected and episodic tales, the boys, their family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers, all partake in the fantastical, surreal, and altogether marvelous imaginations of young boys.

The boys insist that their neighbor built a happiness machine…

Another elderly veteran takes the boys for a spin in his time machine…

A gypsy fortune teller toy in the arcade is an imprisoned princess in need of rescue…

The mysterious junk man whistles into town and tells folks they can have whatever they want from his cart, so long as they “want it with all their heart”…

And meanwhile Grandma’s in the kitchen making the best meal in the history of eating.

A phantasmagoria of color and childhood wonder so prescient and so visceral, I’m confusing it with my own memories of a similar variety.

And boy do I want a swig of that dandelion wine. An absolutely refreshing read. And then some. 4.5/5 stars.

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A River of Five Stars for this Review

Peacelikeariver

Most of the time, you know you’re reading a good book because of how quickly you consume its pages. You’re enthralled with the mystery and tension. The search for answers keeps your eyes sprinting through the narrative.

But then, there are books like Leif Engel’s Peace Like a River which are—and I say this after consulting with several sources—unrivaled in excellence and yet do not contain any of the sprint-like qualities. In fact, so unlike a sprint is Enger’s characterization that the Peace Like a River reads far more like a hot bath after a marathon. The kind you want to stay in for days. Like, maybe, a peaceful river.

Often, I will look at my progress in a book and rate my satisfaction by how rigorously I’m working through it. Conversely, with Peace Like a River, I took my sweet time. I couldn’t read fast because Enger’s language demanded that I slow down to fully absorb his extraordinary work. When it did become evident that an ending was in sight, I lamented. My only comparison in the audacity and command of language is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—which won a Pulitzer.

There’s little more that can be said. A summary is insufficient. Instead, as always, I leave you with my five-star exhortation: Just read it. And if a whole new novel feels untenable at the moment, I beseech you to read only the first chapter. It will leave you (perhaps quite literally) breathless. Consequently, you will have received all the persuasion necessary. 5/5 stars.

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Even Frank Sinatra is Staying North of the Border for this Review

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In my first year of undergrad, I read one of Haruki Murakami’s Rat Trilogy books. I found the novel so unremarkable that I don’t recall which one it was. Having announced this judgment to several Murakami advocates over the years since, they implored me to give him another chance. A dozen years later, I relented.

Picking up a copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun, I was surprised with what I found: it was even worse. Sorry not sorry.

The entire novel follows a pre-pubescent Hijame through his middle-age, and more specifically, follows his Odysseus-sized hubris and unrelenting, lust-crazed hormones toward a childhood flame he eventually discovers and—surprise!—has sex with. The end.

Can someone please explain the point? Maybe there’s someone I’m missing due to translation. Maybe. I respect Murakami’s craft (as I understand it, he wrote too floridly in Japanese and so to be more succinct he learned English, wrote his manuscripts in English, and translated them back into Japanese in order to have a more limited—and thus concise—sentence structure), but no amount of pith can save this story from a one star review.

Not much else to say. Stay north of the border, stay east of the sun on this one. 1/5 stars.

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Chandler’s The Big Sleep Will Keep You Wide Awake—

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A preface: In my quest for Year of the Big Books, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment had at last risen to the top of my list. I eased it from the bookshelf and resolved to dig in for the long haul. Several reading sessions (days) and many hours later, I closed the novel and checked my progress by noting the depth of the bookmark through the book’s pages. What! Is something wrong with me? I bemoaned. No, seriously. How could I have only read this many pages so far? Is my reading speed regressing?

Fearing for my future literary life, I did something I hardly ever do: started a new book in between the one I’m currently reading. An hour later, I was halfway through the new book and consequently my reading crisis had been averted with the added benefit of a valuable lesson: some books cannot be read straight through. Crime and Punishment is one such book.

The new book, as the title of this review has surely intimated was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Sassy, brash, quick-witted, and sure-footed, protagonist Philip Marlowe isn’t just a private investigator; he’s the genre’s mold. Every detective since is only a die-cast.

Nowadays mystery and thriller novels are a dime a dozen (or at least a dollar each since that’s what we often sell them for at the bookstore). Crime-related entertainment has saturated the media. Just think about how many scores of television shows fall into that category. Or, furthermore, what gets the most news coverage? Yeah, it’s not a new idea. But what sticks out about Philip Marlow’s character, and separates him from the deluge of imitators, is his attitude. To steal a quote Margot Livesey in her essay “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars,” Livesey states: “The crucial thing that brings [Marlow] to life, though, is no single attribute or detail, no action or remark, but the overwhelming sense we get, as we read these lines, of how [Marlowe] regards himself and the world: his attitude.”

I don’t know what more I can, or want, to add to that. Normally, I don’t say “just read it” unless I consider a book to be of 5-star merit, but to understand what makes Philip Marlowe—the man, the myth, the original P.I.—and his one-of-a-kind attitude, you do have to read the book. In Marlowe, Raymond Chandler may present what a first appears to be a typical bad boy who can’t obey the law enough himself to be a cop, but simmering beneath his cynical exterior is Chandler’s precise prose, plotting, and observation that it’s obvious why Marlowe’s character has, in fact, endured. Had me wide-eyed from the first. 4/5 stars.

…and maybe a C&P review next week. But probably not.

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