Book Review: Digging to America by Anne Tyler

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Digging to America by Anne Tyler – Available Here

At my work we were given the task of filling out a sheet of paper about the books we liked and the ones we didn’t. There were ‘whys’ and titled examples of what drove us to keep reading and what simply drove us crazy. With a monument forged of papers, management then set about pairing us together and tasked us with recommending books to the other person as an exercise in reader advisory (I work in a library).

This was a book that was on my partner’s all-time favorites. I’ve since lost the sheet that had the total information on it, but I seized this book in order to try and get to know the person who recommended it, to try and built a bridge between our vastly different literary hunting grounds.

And so I started Digging to America, a story about two adopted foreign babies and the story of the drastically different families that raise them.

That’s it.

We see the children grow up, but mostly engages their families interacting and occasionally battling each other over their cultural differences (one is of Iranian heritage, the other white bread American).

The inoffensive style and milquetoast plot (non-hostile pushes towards assimilation and pushback on the premise that traditions are important, oh my!) dance around characters that are human, but in the most uninteresting way possible. They have desires and wants, but they feel so frivolous, so ‘is-this-really-all-you-have-to-worry-about’ that it feels more like being told a story about your parents neighbors than it does a novel.

As negative as all of this sounds I have to say, I didn’t hate the book. I didn’t anything it. I could pick it up and put it down the same way I would utensils from the dishwasher.  It was a book I read and continued reading until it was over and then I sat there for several moments trying to figure out how the hell I was going to talk about it.

I’ve always been someone who has abided by the rule that one should love a book, hate a book, but never succumb to indifference. Which is unfortunately where I currently find myself sitting. Digging to America is the story of two families. It is a shame, then, that neither of them managed to be anything more than passingly interesting.

“Isn’t it odd,” Maryam said. “Just like that, a completely unknown person is a part of their family forever. Well, of course that’s true of a birth child, too, but … I don’t know, this seems more astonishing.” “To me, both are astonishing,” Dave said. “I remember before Bitsy was born, I used to worry she might not be compatible with the two of us. I told Connie, ‘Look at how long we took deciding whom we’d marry, but this baby’s waltzing in out of nowhere, not so much as a background check or a personality quiz. What if it turns out we don’t have any shared interests?’ – Anne Tyler, Digging to America

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Book Review: Will Save the Galaxy for Food by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

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Will Save The Galaxy For Food by Yahtzee Croshaw – Available Here

There is something about Yahtzee Croshaw that has always appealed to me. I discovered his Zero Punctuation just before it got picked up The Escapist back in 2007. His disdain for tropish literature and general cynicism for, well, everything puts him in the same mode of engaging various forms of media as I do. It wasn’t until 2010 that he wrote his first novel called Mogworld, which follows dead sorcerer who is dragged into the fickle strands of unlife by a renegade sorcerer. Mogworld was actually the book I was reading at the time I was first diagnosed with diabetes, the sardonic humor of which actually did a lot to keep me from drifting too hard into the dark and perilous space that chronic illness tends to drag the newly ill. His second book following a jam-based apocalypse entitled simply Jam was less impressive, mainly because five years was enough time for me forget literally everything other than what the title reminded me. So, we are up to a mix bag of plots but a solid handle of authorial voice and humor.

Which leads up here, to his most recent novel Will Save the Galaxy for Food, a satirical sci-fi space adventure where the stereotypical age of heroic star pilots has been rended and torn into a gristles of spongy memory due to the invention and ubiquity of teleportation because why indeed would you risked being mugged by space pirates if you can simply violate the laws of space-time by getting somewhere instantly.

The book is as ridiculous as it sounds and let me tell you, given the state of the world right now, it is exactly what I needed to slough off the top few layers of grim this last year of politics has left on me. Will Save the Galaxy for Food is that small guilt you allow yourself even though some self-serious and possibly wretched part of yourself tells you you shouldn’t.

The characters aren’t most three-dimensional, but wanting that in a book of satire is like searching out loaves of bread at a butcher shop, it’s just not what we do here. The female characters are not exactly bastions for positive feminist critique, but it’s a deal breaker for something parodying pulp sci-fi stories where female scientist used to be so beautiful as to be distracting to their male counterparts.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food parades out all the old sci-fi tropes, slathers them in rouge and fire-water, and dances around them with a lightheartedness that will make any pulp science fiction reader grin. Unless it doesn’t, in which case I would ask you why, but be utterly unconvinced by whatever your answer was. It’s quick, sarcastic, and overflowing with wit, which right now is exactly the kind of diversion I didn’t know I needed.

“Originally it had had two settings: Stun and Kill. These had proved inadequate against the ridiculously well-armored skin of monsters from particularly rough planets, so I’d found a way to tinker with the built-in limitations. The dial now had a third setting, labeled with the handwritten words ‘Solve All Immediate Problems.” ― Yahtzee Croshaw, Will Save the Galaxy for Food

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Book Review: It by Stephen King

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It by Stephen King – Available Here

After reading The Dark Tower series I felt like I had given Stephen King a bit of a bad rap. I have lamented about such things earlier, but aside from my drunken late night decision to follow him on Twitter, I hadn’t actually taken any positive steps to actually read any other part of his not inconsiderable output. I decided to fix that, so I picked up a copy of It.

The book is 1100 pages long. This is not, in and of itself, a deal breaker, but when I see a book breaches the thousand page mark the only books that have ever been able to justify that page count are existential character studies.

King does not do existential character studies.

Still, the new film had come out and as I had not read the source material yet, I couldn’t complain about all the things it did wrong so I made my peace with my doubt and engaged in what I can only describe as the literary equivalent of watching meth head sort through the canned goods of a grocery store. A lot is happening, but very, very little is actually being accomplished.

We spend the book being tossed back and forth from 1958 to 1984 as a bunch of kids and their adult iterations confront an unnamable evil from beyond space and time that has, for whatever reason, decided that even though it could shape shift at will its favorite and primary disguise would be a clown armed with physics-defying balloons. This could, I suppose be scary on its own, but King being King, the real horror comes from the ease of violence and gore the creature is capable of unleashing with much the same effort I exert pouring myself a cup of coffee in the morning. Which would be fine on its own.
Honestly, giant mystery horror creature hunting, haunting, and killing people while shape shifting into zombies, spiders, and werewolves. A simple premise, but a classic horror trope. Great, sure, not going to blow anyone’s minds but goddammit who doesn’t love a good monster story?

Except it’s not just a monster story, oh no, we also get the life stories of the six main characters in excoriating detail because each and every one of them comes draped in some sort of tragedy. Neglect, abuse, hints of pedophilia, you name it Derry, Maine has it in spades. May no child leave this town, unpsychologically scared and crippled by their parents, so it is written! And, yes, the book justifies this in its way, but the Law of Diminishing Returns works in all things and you can only beat a child some many times before I’m less engaged in the words expressing it than the Freudian fixation on the act itself.

Nine-hundred-and-some-odd pages of this and some adult ‘My god, where did the time go and why was it murdered by a vulgar clown’ later we find our way to the ending, which can basically be summarized under ‘The Power of Believing”, which is as trite and unrewarding as it sounds. There is blood, some listless attempts at sadness, but it all boils back down to what is demanded of pop literature: a happy ending. Sure, one could argue that it can’t really be a happy ending if it is built on a pile of corpses, but in a book that defines itself by its visceral horror that is pretty much the only way to build anything.

It took Stephen King four years to write this book. I know this because he told me in the author’s note. This seems like a crushingly long time for someone with Stephen King’s reputation of near omnipresence on the New Release shelf. Apparently, however, there was a strange drug-fueled time between 1984 and It’s release in 1986 where this was, for all intents and purposes, what he was working on. It’s not a dumb book, there are some excellent ideas that are lost amongst all of the scenes meant for ‘character’ building. I wanted to quit this book, but I am not a quitter, were I, however, I would have saved nearly 24 hours of my life.

That might be the greatest horror in the time I spent with this book.

“I’m the Turtle, son. I made the universe, but please don’t blame me for it; I had a belly-ache.” ― Stephen King, It

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Book Review: Stoner by John Williams

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Stoner by John Williams – Available Here

When I was a kid I use to walk through graveyards. I’d search for the oldest headstones and longest lived lying beneath them. I remember running charcoal across crumbled paper in order to decipher those too weathered and beaten to be read by eye alone. I remember carrying them with me, or at least trying to. For a minute, for an hour, some maybe for a day, but I tried to keep them with me, whole lives relegated to names, births and deaths linked together by a simple dash.

And in that way Stoner begins, not with a dash per-se, but something only a step above:

‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956.He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses. When he died his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”’

And then proceeds to immediately rub salt in an already gaping existential wound :

‘An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.’

There it is. The tombstone. A life, sad and unassuming, condensed like a novel into a limerick.

But if the first page is a tombstone then the rest of the book is the body that lies beneath, spent and wasting potential captured in cloth and coarse-cut wood. And what a heartbreakingly perfect thing it is. A piece of history so small as to be almost entirely forgotten.

And what a sad irony this book seemed destined to follow the same path to obscurity.

No one told me John Williams existed. The fact that I had to stumble upon him entirely by accident as opposed to having it resting among Hemingway and Faulkner is one of the greatest travesties in literary history. But I found it. I found it and I’m not letting go.

This book is beautiful. Fleeting in its happiness and crushing in its heartbreak, it is human experience compressed into just under 300 pages. The only proper response to this book is to love it. To hate it is to deny your own humanity, to admit a misalignment of soul to the rest of the world.

“In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.” ― John Williams, Stoner

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Book Review: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

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The Legend of Sleep Hollow by Washington Irving – Available here

I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow back in high school. It was Halloween and as all teachers strive to tie literature to something relevant in their students’ lives, mine did the same. I didn’t remember it. I remember being lightly disappointed, being bored, and feeling slightly misled from the cartoon version I was fed as a child.

Alas; time has tempered me. Now I can take it on its own, appreciate that there is something hidden in the language, a deliberate slowness and meticulousness of language that (perhaps this is simply a projection of my expectations, but I can hardly be a judge) exemplifies how language can be used to put us out of ease. The not-quite-rightness of the world subtly hidden in description is something I feel has been lost in much contemporary horror.

It’s not the horror in a visceral, physical sense. It’s different, deeper, the thrill of the wrongness building and escalating until that final wretched moment when the world is turned aside and the humdrum is supplanted by something that scorches our sense of equilibrium and leaves us with a true, layered ‘horror’.

Having Ichabod Crane get brained with a pumpkin was a simply wonderful touch.
It won’t change your life, but it’s a fun, lavishly written little ghost story.

“All these, however, were mere terrors of the night, phantoms of the mind that walk in darkness; and though he had seen many spectres in his time, and been more than once beset by Satan in divers shapes, in his lonely pre-ambulations, yet daylight put an end to all these evils; and he would have passed a pleasent life of it, in despite of the devil and all his works, if his path had not been crossed by a being that causes more perplexity to mortal man than ghosts, goblins, and the whole race of witches put together, and that was – a woman.” – Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

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Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

 

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King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild – Available Here

I don’t demand much from my nonfiction. If you’re teaching me something and can convey it even in a lightly poetic prose then I’m going to love you. Maybe I’m just cheap, maybe I’m just easily impressed by people who know things that aren’t in my wheelhouse.

Regardless, Hochschild hits most of these notes rather well, it still feels like it’s missing something. He constructs a biting, visceral portrait of the Congo. It is offensive, vulgar, all the things colonialism must be it just lacks a foil. It needs a few more fleshed out human characters. There are some, but too few to truly humanize the accounts beyond the general inhumanity of the history on display.

The character in most desperate need of exploration is King Leopold himself. He is just sort of glossed over, built as the mystical man-behind-the-curtain who is so preoccupied with keeping the illusion of decency that he feels rather more like a dime-store psychopath pulling strings from a distance rather than an actual layered human being. Hochschild seemed to have no interest in exploring him. We are given no history of his youth, no rise to power, nothing beyond a smattering of pulled examples of a callous egomaniac. Maybe Leopold was just that boring, but I doubt it. History is rarely that simple.

Hochschild does an admirable job uncovering a piece of history deliberately forgotten, but he never manages to delve beneath the surface of the horror.

“As the years passed, new myths arose to explain the mysterious objects the strangers brought from the land of the dead. A nineteenth-century missionary recorded, for example, an African explanation of what happened when captains descended into the holds of their ships to fetch trading goods like cloth. The Africans believed that these goods came not from the ship itself but from a hole that led into the ocean. Sea sprites weave this cloth in an “oceanic factory, and, whenever we need cloth, the captain … goes to this hole and rings a bell.” The sea sprites hand him up their cloth, and the captain “then throws in, as payment, a few dead bodies of black people he has bought from those bad native traders who have bewitched their people and sold them to the white men.” The myth was not so far from reality. For what was slavery in the American South, after all, but a system for transforming the labor of black bodies, via cotton plantations, into cloth?” – Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost

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Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

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Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankel – Available Here

Half Holocaust chronicle, half psychoanalytical pimping, this book straddles a strange place stuck between delving into the human condition and feeling good like some sort of literary infomercial. Fortunately, what it’s selling isn’t vulgar and is ultimately as ethereal and undefinable as the meaning of life.

While the book trips over itself in a few places, it is a book to be read by everyone. Not for the quality of its prose, but for its message, it’s insistence on the imperative that on the face of everything is the fact that we are in this together and that that understanding is our greatest chance for a life, a history worth creating.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankel

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