I am in love with books. Infatuated. Obsessed. I am haunted by the thought that there are so many wonderful stories to read, essential stories, important, life altering ones, and I shall never have the time to get to them all. I love novels, myths, fairy tales, epics of war, and stories told by firemen sitting around the kitchen table.
Why do I read? To know that I am alive. To know that hope and humanity exist in the world. To remember that some people spend years of their life, not watching reality TV or pornography, but trying to create something meaningful and lasting and beautiful. I read to know what is possible.
Here are a some worth checking out:
Pride of Baghdad is a graphic novel about a family of four lions who escape the Baghdad Zoo during the American bombing of Iraq. Safa, an older female was once free but prefers a life of captivity and the security and food it provides. She feels loyalty to the keepers. Noor, mother of the cub Ali, wants to fight for freedom but doesn’t understand its true cost. Zill, the adult male, doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other. He simply wants to protect his family but captivity has left him soft. And little Ali, with the innocence of youth, sees it all as an exciting adventure. All will find that freedom is more dangerous than they ever imagined.
I’ve read a bit of modern lit (poetry, fiction, memoirs) on the Iraq War and in grad school I immersed myself in the literature of Sumer and Mesopotamia. Pride of Baghdad caught me off guard. This simple graphic novel was deeply moving and sad. I loved it, but I do have a special love for lions and a deep appreciation for Sumer and Mesopotamia which has translated into a fascination with that part of the world.
And then there’s the art!
Exit Kingdom is the story of a man who lives by a code of his own in a world devoid of law and morality. Moses Todd wanders the land protected by his preternatural strength, size, and brutality. He is his debauched brother Abraham’s keeper, restraining him from the worse violence, but enacting no judgement. Moses wants a purpose. A mission. Something to give meaning to his post-apocalyptic wandering and he finds it at a holy outpost in the form of a small, beautiful, young woman. She is the Vestal Amata, believed to be holy because she is immune to the hunger of the dead.
Moses is tasked with taking her to Colorado Springs but along the way he will find that she is not what he first thought. A man who has no physical rival will discover that he lacks the skills to protect himself from this mysterious girl. Is she worthy of the risk he will take? Is anything holy left to walk upon the Earth? How would a beautiful young girl, bereft of family or guardians, survive the apocalypse? And how does a man follow his own internal code of honor in a world where no one else does?
It ain’t that he’s a good man–not by any measurement– but he’s got to believe there are laws. He’s got to believe there are things you’re supposed to do and things you ain’t–or else what’s it all for anyway? There are everywhere you look forks in the road. If there weren’t some purpose to choosing one or the other, then–then what? Then he and the world would be paralysed with quandariness.
Alden Bell can find holiness in any landscape. As in The Reapers are the Angels, one of my favorite books, Exit Kingdom expresses the idea that even amidst the carnage of rotting corpses, murder and defilement, sacredness is everywhere. It is a way of looking upon the world. A certain kind of vision.
We are the holy ones, despite the sordid things we have done. Sacrality lies in our own hearts, and maybe even flesh, if we will turn our eye to that part of ourselves, draw a line in the sand, and stand there.
Safelight is the spare, haunting story of Frank, a young paramedic and amateur photographer working the streets of New York in the 90s. It is a time of crack wars and blazing neighborhoods, and Frank responds to a constant stream of carnage with disconnected apathy, shooting meticulous pictures of the injured and dead while his partner shields him from onlookers. Back at base, medics pass the photos around rating the best shots of degradation, not entirely oblivious to their artistic potential. Frank seems to be sleepwalking through life, a response to his father’s recent death and the wading through constant trauma day in and day out.
Then he meets Emily and something begins to shift.
The medics of New York (all male) are detached, numbed, and calloused. There is no altruism here, merely survival. Most are doing the job because there’s really nothing else they believe they can do. They run the streets unsupervised in two man crews. It’s a time in New York’s history when crime and violence reigned and medics worked with little oversight or accountability. Frank and his hardened partner, Burnett, respond to patients as they see fit. They are good medics, but short on compassion and devoid of empathy, operating with a shattered moral compass. Patients may be beaten, narcotics may be stolen. It’s all in a day’s work.
Frank walks a thin line of self-destruction, yet despite his apathy, striking even for this crowd, he has a different perspective. Something is there, a consciousness, slumbering beneath his laconic exterior, waiting to break through. It’s on a call ending in bloodshed that he meets Emily and very slowly begins to wake up.
Emily is young, wounded, and HIV positive in a time when AIDS was laden with superstition and fear. No one at work is surprised that Frank is drawn to her (they all know he has a thing for the sick, dead, and broken) and they do their best to try and protect him. Yet, Emily is not the real danger–they are, with their coldness, their numbness, their hardened hearts, all side-effects of a job shutting them down and disconnecting them from humanity.
It is through Emily that Frank gradually becomes humanized, sensitized. By coming to know a dying girl his view of the world is slowly reborn. Emily is a lifeline that if embraced has the potential to reconnect Frank to the world and to himself. But will he take it?
As a paramedic, I find it interesting how the men of Safelight close themselves off and shut down a part of themselves in order to do their jobs. But what happens when the compartmentalization crumbles and the detachment begins bleeding over to the rest of their lives? What happens when you see tragedy on a constant basis, year after year, with too little time to decompress? How do you stay open to the tender beauty of life? Often, it is the ones we love who keep us tethered to our humanity and reveal the meaning of our existence. Without them there is not much to stop us from drifting off into the cold, dark void of emptiness.
Shannon Burke is a wonderful writer and Safelight is a fast, deep read. The writing is spare, haunting, and beautiful with a thoroughly believable character arc. Safelight, so named for the red light that illuminates Frank’s otherwise blacked out darkroom, starts out emotionally sparse and grows more intense as Frank begins to heal and awaken. By the end, I could not stop reading and when it was all over the story stayed with me a long time.
Haunting. Hopeful. Beautiful.
It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is one of the best books I’ve read all year including The Great Gatsby and True Grit. Yes, I’m putting Engel in the same category as Fitzgerald and Portis. This coming of age story is a true classic, filled with such poignant honesty and searing wisdom as to stand the test of time, yet it is a fluid page turner too. An easy five stars and I do not grant five stars easily. If you’re looking for THE novel of 2013, this is it.
Lita, a young American-Columbian girl in her 20th year, journeys to Paris to continue her education. She’s a green blood, a new moneyed girl from parents who come from tragically modest means yet clawed their way out of poverty to realize the American Dream. In Paris, Lita will come crashing against old money, blue blooded establishment, multi-million dollar girls from all over the world, and maybe, just possibly, she will find the greatest love of her life. It’s Not Love is a simple story really, an international Romeo and Juliet for the 21st century full of timeless universal themes.
Engel explores what it is to be an outsider, poised on the edge of an exotic world looking in. She explores what it is to be female on the cusp of womanhood, a girl discovering herself yet torn in half amidst conflicting loyalties to family, tradition, country, and love. How Lita resolves these various tensions blooming within her will keep you relentlessly turning the pages.
This is a novel hard to put down. As I came to the end, I was desperate to see what would happen to our dear Lita. I’m a fire medic and I flew through pages on the way back from panic attacks and a car accident before finishing back at the station alone in the truck, breathless, eyes welling up with tears. I was stunned. And still now, long after I’ve turned the last page, I feel the novel’s atmosphere and characters lingering in my mind like the memory of an unforgettable perfume.
Few writers are funny and wise simultaneously, but Patricia Engel (like Charles Portis), is one of those writers. She is also tragically romantic. I have often yearned for a category of literary romance, but it is hard to find a writer beyond the age of Jane Austen or the Brontes who can render desire in breathtaking prose. Robert Goolrich (The Reliable Wife) can, and now I am happy to add Patricia Engel to the list.
It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris is romantic and wise. Sad and beautiful. It is a novel that transcends hype and fads and time. Patricia Engel is a deeply talented writer with a sensitive eye and compassionate heart threaded through with a touch of tragedy. I cannot wait to see what her next story will bring.
Fiend takes place during the zombie apocalypse. Most people have mysteriously died in the night, and only some have reanimated as Zombies. The only humans who have survived death and reanimation are meth heads, for reasons unknown. Chase Daniels is a meth head. He survives along with his friend Typewriter, the love of his life KK, her boy friend Jared, and their dealer/cook The Albino. All are speed freaks. This does not bode well for the future of humanity.
Peter Stenson is a unique, courageous, and talented writer, but Fiend is an exhausting ride. It takes off at breakneck speed and does not slow down. Ever. The characters do meth non-stop, shooting, smoking, or snorting it. For the person observing and not partaking (the reader) this is quite a ride to take with characters whose consciousness swirls and jumps like a runaway roller coaster careening through the muck. Violence, of course, ensues. So does screaming, crying, and occasional sex.
About half way in I began wondering what this story was really about. Yes, it’s about drugs. The zombies, called chucks for their creepy habit of giggling and chuckling, really take the back seat, although they are a great symbol for the dehumanization of drug addiction. (As a medic in Miami-Dade, I’ve seen my share of zombies). But what does Stenson have to say? We invest hours and days into a book in order to go on a journey. Often there is a character arc, a transformation of sorts that occurs. I kept waiting for it to happen, and then I began to suspect that maybe that’s not what this story is about. (Whether or not it finally occurs I will not say. Better to leave you guessing.)
So what is Fiend about besides the fact that drug addiction really really really sucks? Bad. Really. Peter Stenson was in his 20 when he wrote this, and I believe, still in grad school. He is at the beginning of his literary journey and perhaps a bit young to be able to fully philosophize on all the implications of his experience. Or maybe he has and this is all there is to say. However, there are certain themes that keep coming up:
1. Fiends hate themselves. Truly and deeply. It goes far beyond self-loathing. They know they have destroyed their lives and irrevocably brutalized the hearts of those who love them and it hurts like hell. When they are high, they hate themselves a lot less. Sometimes, for a split second, they may even love themselves.
2. Fiends have an intense inability to face one moment of life with an unaltered consciousness. Life is overwhelming in its torturous heartbreaking disgusting mundanity and to face a second of it without speed racing through their veins is just too much to bear.
3. Fiends don’t have the deepest thoughts but there is plenty of guilt swirling through their brains. Their vocabulary is painfully limited. Lots of yos, what the fucks, and tampon metaphors.
4. When you are a fiend loss comes with the territory. Loss of their families, most who have tried to love them and save them, but have failed miserably. Loss of innocence. Loss of purity. Loss of self-love and happiness. There is before and after and they look back at before with an intense longing and self-hatred for all the ways they thoroughly destroyed it. Often, there is no one to blame but themselves.
5. Fiends destroy the ones they love. Sometimes it is the drug itself that does it, as if Tina is a living entity that takes them over, shoving their consciousness and will to the side. Like a demon it possesses them and wrenches control. (I’ve seen this on calls, as if the person is possessed by the devil. If speed had been around in the middle ages, inquisitors would have orgasmed in continual glee.) Throughout the book Chase suggests it was the drug acting and the being behind the drug was gone or paralyzed or subsumed. Usually though they live side by side, the mind and the meth, locked in some sick stumbling dance, hating and craving each other simultaneously.
Fiend is imbued with loss and nostalgia, yet intense love and friendship somehow survive the carnage. Despite its overwhelming power, meth has not destroyed every ounce of loyalty they share for each other. But with lives like this why fight so hard to survive? When you absolutely loathe yourself and when you are surrounded by the broken fragments of humanity and there is no way out other than more meth and degradation, why continue on? Why do humans fight to survive when their life is a pathetic living hell?
On a superficial note, the cover of the hard back rocks. It’s probably half the reason I bought the book, that and the first badass paragraph. Stenson can write, but Fiend is a brutal bloody ride. Reading this story feels like being dragged through shards of glass down the turnpike at high speed. You may possibly survive, but there will be scars.
The Things They Carried is a story of the war in Vietnam, but unlike most war stories there is little heroism here. The greatest courage seems to be in just showing up, but then O’Brien dispels that idea when he writes, I would go to the war. I would kill and maybe die because I was embarrassed not to. . . I was a coward. I went to war. Not your typical war story, but then O’Brien was drafted into a war he clearly felt great ambivalence toward. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war.
It took me awhile to figure out if this was a work of fiction or memoir. The main character of the story is named Tim O’Brien and the supporting characters are the same people he dedicates the book to. But, the title page reads: The Things They Carried, A Work of Fiction. So this is a story about war and about writing about war and how sometimes fiction captures the truth better than the truth actually does.
Almost every boy in the book (O’Brien calls them boys as most are still teenagers) do not know what the war is about and do not believe in it. Toward the beginning, terrified of the war, O’Brien flees to the border of Canada where he hides out for six days before eventually returning home to face his service.
I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It couldn’t happen. I was above it. I had the world dicked, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard. A mistake, maybe a foul up in the paperwork. I was no soldier. I hated Boy Scouts. I hated camping out. I hated dirt and tents and mosquitoes. The sight of blood made me queasy, and I couldn’t tolerate authority, and I didn’t know a rifle from a slingshot. I was a liberal for Christ sake: if they needed fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age hawk? Or some dumb jingo in his hard hat and Bomb Hanoi button, or one of LBJ’s pretty daughters, or Westmoreland’s whole handsome family, nephews and nieces and baby grandson. There should be a law, I thought. If you support a war, if you think it’s worth the price, that’s fine, but you have to put your own precious fluids on the line. You have to head for the front and hook up with an infantry unit and help spill the blood. And you have to bring along your wife, or your kids, or your lover. A law I thought.
There are girls in this story. Virgins, brides, and potential lesbians. Every one seems unattainable, even the girl that willingly joins her boyfriend in the bush only to embrace the chaos and darkness of Nam more completely than he ever can. There is a constant gulf between them all, a longing that can never be satisfied, made deeper and wider by a war the women don’t understand or appreciate. The soldier’s sense of isolation increases. What the boys need most–tenderness, understanding, acceptance–seems the most unattainable of all. So they must find it amongst each other. But when they return home and disperse, what then? More intense longing. More painful isolation.
The Things They Carried is a brutal and sad book. At times it left me speechless. Another time I cried. Each chapter feels like a story complete unto itself, (many were previously published as short stories), and I had to stop after each one to take a rest and recover. The feelings O’Brien evokes can be hard to take. He is trying to convey what it is like to go to war, a war that means nothing to him, and he does a pretty damn good job.
With only 1% of Americans serving in the military, I used to think a draft seemed fair. Maybe then we would decide more carefully who we were willing to sacrifice. But, after reading The Things They Carried, forcing boys to kill other boys against their will seems like a greater sacrilege.
I am not a huge fan of short stories, often they come off as cynical and depressing, butÂ Tenth of DecemberÂ is fantastic. It is utterly unique and unlike anything I have read before. George Saunders, acclaimed master of short stories that he is, has a mind on an entirely different plane than most of ours. Â He seems to be operating in a different realm of perception. Â His worlds appear like ours, but then his take on it all is so different that suddenly you almost feel like an alien peering down at humanity in all it’s blunders, striving, and yearning.
Saunders believes in the human race, which in this age of chaos, seems like a miracle. His stories are full of misfits desperate to fit in and be acknowledged by the world. Â Although they’re constrained by the painful circumstances of their lives, they strive to break free and rise to the occasion. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes not so much.
In this age of disenchantment, it is refreshing to read someone who believes in humanity. Saunders saves his best story for last. “The Tenth of December” comes at the end and is the most emotionally powerful story of the bunch.
A man survives the end of the world with his dog and a plane.
The Dog Stars is a literary dystopian novel about finding meaning in life when our world has been destroyed– literally and physically.
What is worth living for: simple survival, a dog, the mountains? Â Is survival enough or is something more needed? Â What is worth killing for: a book of poems, a case of coke, a woman?
There are master survivors in this book, expert killers and then the tender hearted too, who are pierced by the beauty of life yet somehow manage to continue on. Â The killers protect the tender hearted–the poets and doctors–that is their purpose, so that the humanity in us may continue to exist.
Petter Heller is a philosopher-outdoorsman-poet and he infuses all of this into his story. He captures the dying and regenerating landscape with a detail and tenderness that can only come from someone truly in love with this world. Â The Dog Stars is beautifully written and deep with meaning. This is a philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and if you are just looking for a typical dystopian or action novel, best to look elsewhere.
The Dog Stars lingered with me for days like a form of hypnosis. Â Or a dream. Â It does have some flaws, but to me they are irrelevant, overshadowed by the weight of the novel. Â It really makes you ask what is worth living for?
Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful, snuck up on me, grabbed me and refused to let go. It begins in a small town, 1948, when a man arrives with a suitcase full of money and some very sharp knives. This man, Charlie, is a quiet decent sort who buys up land all over the valley and goes along quite contentedly until Sylvan Glass appears one day in the meat shop where he works. From that day on, everything has changed.
This story started out slow and dreamy and then sucked me in like quicksand until I was powerless to free myself. Goolrick writes with a building intensity until the tension is wound so tight you are bracing yourself for it to explode like a bomb going off. The story is like an orgasm, slowly building then carrying you along until it explodes leaving you breathless and stunned.
Wonderful is told in the style of a story shared by a fire through a long night. There is a lot of telling vs. showing, which I thought writers weren’t supposed to do, but here it works beautifully. It is not perfect. There is an ever shifting point of view that sometimes left me confused as to who could possibly be telling the story. But like a good lover, perfection is over rated and often boring.
Goolrick is a very sexual writer. This shone through A Reliable Wife (which I loved!) as it does here. In both novels sex is a central part of the story. It has the power to redeem and to destroy. Will it save Charlie and Sylvan by uniting them and offering a chance at happiness or will it utterly obliterate them until nothing is left but blood and a heartbreaking collateral damage?
Goolrick’s imagination is as fluid as water. Sometimes I think he’s gay; he writes about women’s thoughts and clothing in such a way that seems impossible for a man to imagine. Other times, he appears fiercely straight, the way he talks about a man’s lust, desire, and love for a woman. He even fully inhabits the mind of a child in an utterly believable way, never condescending or patronizing, a mind full of wonder and fear.
I have often wished for a genre of literary romance. A genre where I can find novels about love and desire written seriously, gorgeously, and with skill. Goolrick is it. One thing he understands for certain is desire. I will read anything this man writes.
The Reapers are the Angels is one of my all time favorite books. It is a brutal yet exquisite story of survival and transcendence. Temple is a teenage girl who has survived the end of civilization. She has grown up after and it is all she has ever known. Some people are broken or they have used these circumstances as an excuse to surrender to their most selfish impulses. Other people live unable to face reality or in their dreams of rebuilding a new civilization. Many simply live continually in fear.
Temple, however, is different. She is a true spiritual warrior who sees beauty and God in almost anything. She lives in and accepts the present and the only thing she truly fears is her own capacity for violence. She certainly is not broken and she lives by her own code. Temple meets a man, Moses Todd, who will become her enemy and hunter, and yet they will share the bond of kindred souls. Moses Todd respects and understands her, but will he spare her? Can Temple survive this new brutal world on her own? Can one ruthlessly kill and yet remain at all pure?
I will read this book again. It is not perfect, but as a great writer once told me, sometimes perfect is not the most interesting. Reapers is a story of survival, resiliency, violence and deep spirituality. Alden Bell is brilliant. I’m not sure where this story came from, but I hope he keeps writing more like this one.
The Color of Night is a beautiful, haunting, and disturbing story, which I found fascinating. I see it as a character study about a girl’s transformation from victim to predator. Madison Smartt Bell charts Mae’s evolution through flashbacks that describe her sexual abuse at the hands of her brother with excruciating psychological verity. Mae says of Terrell, “He never forced. He persuaded. . ,” thereby making her complicit in her own abuse. Mae’s brother is the trigger that unleashes the animal inside her, along with the voices and the lure of pain.
Later, D., leader of The Family, (yes that would be the Manson family, although it’s never outright called that in the book) will pick up where Terrell left off, honing Mae’s predatory instincts while using her as a tool to serve his own needs. D. orchestrates “the invasion of arousal, willing or no,” turning Mae’s body against her and against others as well.
The miracle in all of this is that despite the devastation inflicted upon her body and mind, Mae is still able to fiercely and tenderly love. At turns, both jealous and protective, she ruthlessly avenges her lover, even as she actively participates in her destruction. And so, not only is this a novel of violence and brutality, it is a love story as well.
Bell’s language is gorgeous and darkly erotic. He weaves luscious myth throughout the narrative that deepens and enriches the story. Bell writes about our blackest nightmares in a beautiful, seductive, and detached manner, just as Mae is seductive and detached herself. The reader is pulled in, mesmerized and repulsed by the violence, yet unable to look away. Bell seduces the reader just as Terrell and D have seduced Mae.
Although The Color of Night is a violent novel, there is a point to the violence. It illustrates how we, as humans, transmit our pain from one person to another, keeping it alive, feeding it as it expands and spreads throughout the world. Mae expresses this when referring to one of her victims she says, “It stays with me, her dying look- how finally, how absolutely she accepted Atë, the suffering passed on to her through me.”
If only we could eat our own pain, contain it within ourselves, or else transfigure and release it, instead of passing it on to others, then perhaps the damage could be somewhat contained.
Here’s what the book description says:
[Matterhorn] is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.
Here are my thoughts:
So many great reviews have been written about Matterhorn that I am reluctant to even try. I will say that this is the greatest novel of the 21st century that I have read so far. I know we’re only 13 years in, but still, this will be a tough one to beat. Why it didn’t win the Pulitzer I don’t know.
In college one summer, I took a class on the Vietnam War. I have forgotten most of what I learned that summer, but I will never forget this novel. I have learned more from Matterhorn than I have from numerous history books, movies, and lectures. This is the power of art– and Matterhorn is art– to transform our consciousness. This is why ultimately the pen is mightier than the sword.
Lt. Mellas, a college boy and brand new officer, has landed straight in the bush amidst some weary and skeptical marines, some from the inner city, others from rural America. Most are boys really, few are out of their teens, yet according to the ancient rules of combat they are old enough for killing and for dying.
Mellas, hardly past his teens himself, struggles to fit in and earn their respect. He wants to prove himself. He wants a medal. He wants people to know (girls especially) when he returns home that he served and is a hero. That he is a man. Well, Mellas is going to get a lot more than he bargained for. He’ll learn the price that medals come with and he’ll have to decide what is more important: following orders or saving his men. For Marines may enter the jungle of combat as boys, but if they emerge, it will be as scarred and wounded men.
Matterhorn illustrates that the absurdity of war is deep and the courage of brothers even deeper. I am staggered by the self-serving nature of those with power and the selfless sacrifice of the grunts. War is the greatest dichotomy of all– searing brutality amidst intense compassion. Cruelty and love. Insanity and hope. It is difficult to find meaning amidst the waste. And, often, time shows that it was for nothing. Ultimately, it is our love for each other that makes life worth living and dying for.
Read Matterhorn and weep. This is classic literature of the 21st century.