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My Open ‘Dear John’ Letter to the Tournament of Books

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

It’s not me; it’s you.

Like all hot-and-heavy romances, ours was fated to burn brightly, if only briefly.

But now, I fear it is over.

When I first saw you, I was stunned by the sheer audacity of combining something I adore about sports—the head-to-head, single-elimination tournament—with discussion about books. It would not be too much to say I was simply awestruck and immediately knew we were a perfect match.

As one does in such situations, I dived in without reservation or consideration, wildly throwing 16 titles into my Seattle Public Library queue with bold disregard for whatever any information available about the books themselves, allowing infatuation to set-aside book-selection processes that had served me relatively well over the course of a reading lifetime. If you loved it, then I wanted to love it, too. 

It’s easy to see now how this was bound to lead to this, but isn’t it always thus?

Then, you put “Lightning Rods” in my hands. 

I admit, I wondered whether something wasn’t up right then and there. There was no waiting for the book from the library, which is never a good sign. Nor is it favorable when I’ve not somehow read about or heard of the book, considering how much book-centric media I absorb on a daily basis. 

BUT! We only work if we trust each other, yeah? 

So I read.

It were as if, on the first time you cooked dinner for me, I thought I saw you not wash your hands after handling raw poultry and, rather than thinking that maybe I need to slow it down for my own benefit, I tried to dismiss it as over-thinking the situation and happily eat.

We know now, of course, that I got really, really sick after that meal. Can I blame the hand-washing incident explicitly? Maybe not, but…here we are.

Don’t get me wrong; we had some great times. “The Sisters Brothers,” “The Art of Fielding,”  “The Tiger’s Wife,” and, of course, the lovely March romp of book-battle discussion.

We’ll always have March!

Eventually, I wrote-off the “Lightning Rods” incident and the slightly less-offensive failure of “Open City” to meet my tastes to the point where it all still seemed as fresh and exciting as day one by the time I was faced with a long stretch apart from my new crush.

This year, you came along a little earlier than last with even more titles than before. I didn’t ask myself “Why?” you felt the need to tart it up a bit. Rather, I was simply happy to see you here, and it was January 2012 all over again. 

And, truly, it was the same thing all over again, except that, this time, maybe my eyes were open just a wee bit more.

Like “Lightning Rods” last year, I managed to get one of the entries this year almost immediately due to it being sold at a deep-discount as an ebook on the day I heard the titles announced. Again, I jumped to the “buy” button, not reading the description of “Song of Achilles,” nor any reviews or discussion around it. 

This time, however, it felt like true deceit, even with all the disclaimers about how the final list of competitors are not ever meant to be definitive of the best 16 (this year, 18) books from the previous year. I wanted desperately to be wrong about the novel, but no matter how I looked at it, I felt I had been conned into reading a glorified romance novel, once you looked past the obvious appeal of a retelling some great Greek mythology with a contemporary prosaic style. 

And the realization stung.

Stung enough that I went back to re-examine things more deeply.

Suddenly, the new play-in round in which three novels will compete for a place among the final 16 didn’t seem like such an innocent little quirk, when considering the unlikelihood of the three novels in question all being set around the same topic (war in the Middle East) having been the three novels between which a panel could not decide for the final seat at the table.

Then I take a quick count of author gender and see a nearly even split between women and men, and, rather than thinking it sheer happenstance, wonder whether the panel didn’t tinker to make sure the tournament didn’t find itself yet another target of those who’ve questioned loudly the last few years the dominance of male-written pieces in some forums. 

And, if such politically correct tinkering is taking place, how on Earth did you end up with such a predominantly white collection of authors?!

Maybe it IS my fault for not looking beyond the surface before charging in, but I’m always going to resent feeling manipulated. While trying to remember only the good times, I probably don’t really want to know what you were doing, what your real motivations were. 

But, it’s over. I have been shocked back into remembering who I am. 

We can still be friends, though. Cool?

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Satan is Real! “The Devil All the Time,” by Donald Ray Pollock

The word “devil” is in the title. If this might bother you a little bit, don’t read this.

The cover is a bit creepy. If this makes you hesitate, don’t read this.

There is some violence. If you are the sort who can’t be past such subject matter, don’t read this.

There are, in fact, some fairly nasty people and events found in the text of this book…

Surely, you are either in or out by now. No need to continue down this road.

Go ahead and read the prologue. Experience a short scene with the Russell family through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy already haunted by his father’s twin obsessions of drinking and praying. That should either drive you the other way or drag you into Knockemstiff, Ohio en route to wild ride through the lives of some stark characters wandering the haunted hillsides of Donald Ray Pollock’s first full-length novel.

If you’re like me, you’re going to be thrilled.

The characters alone are enough to keep your attention throughout the span of the book. You have the aforementioned Arvin Russell, who witnesses some interesting prayer tactics on the part of his father, who is desperately attempting to enlist the help of the divine to heal his terminally ill wife The creative use and manipulation of religion and its true believers creates a stable of quirky people operating in separate story lines, touching only lightly until they collide in spectacularly horrific ways. Think “slow motion train wreck.”

Our cast of characters include:

Arvin and his parents, which we’ve covered enough without telling the story (I’ve mentioned I don’t do story recap, yeah?)

Arvin’s grandmother and the orphaned girl for whom she cares.

Roy and Theodore: When first you meet these two, Roy dumps spiders over his head as part of a sermon, accompanied by the guitar playing of wheelchair-bound Theodore. Theodore loves Roy.

The Flamingo Lady and Flapjack the Clown: Barely in the book, but a perfect place to mention them. (In fact, if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re reading that there is a character called ‘Flapjack the Clown,’ and are not already arranging to own the book, I can’t help you.)

Carl and Sandy: The depiction of this couple has to be the reason so many reviews of this novel mention Quentin Tarantino. I mean, I guess you can make a case for them evoking Mickey and Mallory, but it would be a weak case, indeed. I am not much a fan of reviews that compare the work being reviewed with other works with a greater resonance in pop-culture spheres. I hate to just dismiss it as lazy, but it IS lazy and often misses the mark. This here, is a great example. There’s a lot of violence. Does that make it Tarantino-esque? I wouldn’t deny the man is known for including a lot of bloody mess in his films, but I always think of the alluring dialogue in his films. There’s nothing in Pollock’s writing that will remind you of Jules and Vincent discussing Parisian fast food.

And, right after I called it lazy…

There is a LOT of violence here. I know some people are sensitive to that and will automatically be unable to move past it to see the strength of this piece, which is some highly stylized writing. If you’re reading it and can’t stop thinking of how violent it is, that’s obviously a problem. It reminds me of the first time I saw an episode of “Deadwood” on HBO. I hadn’t been following the story, so I wasn’t absorbed into enjoying the local color, characters or plot well enough to not hear the word “FUCK!” being exclaimed every fifth syllable. It kicked me out of the story again and again to where I failed to make the 30-minute mark.

Watching the series from the beginning, however, had a bit of a numbing effect to where I’m not sure I didn’t imagine how much they were cursing my first experience. Make no mistake; I’m aware there is still a lot of cursing, but now it just seems all part of that local color I learned to understand to enjoy way back in tenth grade when we discussed “The Outcasts of Poker Flats,” by Bret Harte.

Of course, the language in “Deadwood” doesn’t quite drive the action the way the violence does in “The Devil All the Time.” Not a perfect analogy in that sense. I was just trying to say you’d do well to look around the blood to get to the meat.

It’s probably fair to address a perceived flaw or two if I’m going to request you overlook something else.

Any reader is going to pick up a book with all these story lines and assume they’re going to be tied together at some point. The ways all the assorted characters are brought together when they’re brought together does give one a bit of a “Oh, COME ON!” reaction. I don’t wish to say “predictable” because I don’t think it is that, but there is an element of tidiness to it that is a bit incongruous with the messy lives of these characters. Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. I mean, when you read a Jason Bourne book, you know he’s ultimately not going to be killed. Here, you’re put early in a position of knowing that something is coming and, hence, can somewhat see it coming at you. Again, doesn’t ruin it for me.

Essentially, you’re either going to like the style, tone, and storytelling capacity of Donald Ray Pollock or you won’t. I’d imagine this book and author to be somewhat polarizing in that sense. I’m going to call myself a fan, which means I may or may not admit to overlooking some things in favor of an overall joy of reading the book. This also means that, should you say it’s no good, I reserve the right to dismiss you with a “eh…what do you know?!”

DEVIL! DEVIL! DEVIL!

Randall Reads: Out of Disaster, Salvation…Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Poverty. Single-parent family. Teenage pregnancy. Alcoholism. Dog Fighting. Dismemberment. Hurricane Katrina.

As top-line topics go, “Salvage the Bones” touches on some pretty big bummers.

That being said, there is a constant breeze of humanity and family blowing through Jesmyn Ward’s pages, strongest after the storm has passed and the waters have receded.

People much smarter about literature and the written word awarded this novel the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, so I write this with a heavy amount of consideration that there’s a good chance I’m missing/misunderstanding something about this novel. This is not to say that I found the book to be poorly written or any such thing. To the contrary, there is quite a lot I enjoyed about this book. The story, language, and characters all have a way of sticking with you.

But, until one of those smarter people are able to explain to me what I’m missing, I would have to opine that it is not the best book I’ve read published within the window for qualification for that prize. (Yeah, I preferred “The Tiger’s Wife.” Sue me.)

This may all come down to one (perceived) flaw, to be honest. It is such a big flaw, however, I’m surprised it didn’t hinder the novel’s rise to glory and that I haven’t read other reviews finding fault with it.

Of course, all that means is that it’s probably more a personal hang-up and those smart people would just shake their heads at my words in disappointment. This would be sad because I know Victor LaValle to have been among the panelists who selected the award winner.

I like LaValle!

I have to say, however, that it eventually drove me CRAZY how many times Esch (the narrator and protagonist) refers to Medea as she’s reading about her in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and becomes an über-obvious parallel for her own story.

Well, there are elements which might not be as clear, but, (un)luckily Ward and Esch are there to point them out for you page after page after page. It’s a little maddening, making me want to scream, “ALRIGHT! I GET IT ALREADY!”

Except that I often read during my bus commute to and from the city and would, at least be an unwelcome drawing of unwelcome attention. At most, I could be thrown off the bus due to the misunderstanding.

Anyhow, this became such a prominent thing within the story that it began to hinder my enjoyment of the otherwise-masterful storytelling. I distinctly remember turning a page and quickly skimming to see where the next reference to Medea and Jason and the Argonauts would be. Not finding one for three consecutive pages felt like a triumph.

A triumph I celebrated quietly.

I hate to linger on this singular issue too much, especially as it seems to have not bothered anyone else too much. It is MY review however, and it is a huge part of my overall experience of having read the book.

Since it was not enough to otherwise ruin the book for me, though, I shall proceed.

Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.

Generally, I don’t do story recapping, because I don’t really like to read story recaps in book reviews. I think it’s fairly well known this book takes place in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. It would be a mistake to confuse that event to be the novel’s subject matter. It certainly has some allegorical qualities, but this is a much smaller (hence, larger) story about people and family and overcoming and love (“love as certainty”).

Keep in mind before picking it up, however, there are some heavy, heavy topics in this book (remember the first line of the review?). If it’s going to just bum you out,  then…sorry. If you can see through some rough times (reading about dog fighting isn’t going to appeal to many, I’m sure), you’ll get a lot out of this book…even if the continued referencing to Greek mythology gets tired.

Randall Reads: ‘Lightning Rods’ by Helen DeWitt

February 19, 2012 Leave a comment
After the first 30 pages or so of this book, I set it down at the dining room table and walked away, shaking my head. I told my wife what I had just read. It seemed ridiculous, and it was hard to gauge where the story could possibly be going from there. It just was very far removed from the sort of thing I normally read.

Eventually, I continued. As I did, I started to enjoy the absurd nature of the events of the book, but didn’t think about it more than that.

The book meandered to a close at some point, to which my reaction was something along the lines of “Okay…?”

When the 2012 Tournament of Books entrants were announced, I went to the Seattle Public Library website and quickly placed holds on all the books I’d not yet read (most of them), figuring I’d read first whichever books first became available. Simple enough plan, eh?

‘Lightning Rods’ I didn’t even have to put on hold. It was not checked out. Maybe now I should have taken that and the fact that it was the only book of the 16 I’d not read one shred about. In fact, I didn’t recall ever even hearing of it or the author. Not unreasonable, but I read a lot about books. Just the nature of how the ToB qualifies its entrants, I’d have had to have heard of it!

But I hadn’t. Now I can somewhat piece together why.

It’s an unnecessary fleshing out of an absurd premise. The skeleton of a story that stands as the novel, to me, shows that there’s not a lot of substance behind it.

Of course, this may all very well be the point of Helen DeWitt in how she wrote it. The characters are extremely thin, which would be a sign it’s all to the point.

But I didn’t get the point. If I explained the premise of this book to you over a cup of coffee (not even a ‘venti,’ just a tall), you’d likely walk away thinking you’d like to read the book, even though I’d be trying to assure you, “Look, everything I just told you in this thumbnail sketch? That’s it! That’s all there is to it!”

There’s no character development or pleasant-to-the-ear prose, which are two of the things I enjoy most about a book. Throw that atop a very superficial story…just not much to recomment.

Finally, the one thing I keep reading about this book now is how funny it is. I would say the premise is funny, again, in a completely absurd way (which, as a huge Monty Python devotee, should work for me), but the odds you’ll be chuckling even every ten pages is remote.

I’ve moved on to “Salvage the Bones.” Much more my speed.