Flash Reviews – 13 Books

13 books I’ve read from the last two months. I wanted to review them all but never found the time (I was reading too damn much!)

Here we go:

Horror (’tis the season…)

revival

Stephen King gets back to his nocturnal roots with Revival. Reverend Jacobs is a peculiar kind of preacher. When he moves into a small New England town (I know, shock-er!) a young boy, Jamie, is captivated by his near magical use of what the good Rev calls the “secret electricity.” Jamie and the Rev keep crossing paths throughout their lives, and they may share a common destiny; one that Jamie wants no part of. And what exactly is this “secret electricity”? Let’s just say Lovecraft would be proud of ol’ Stevie boy this time around. I picked up the audiobook version of this, read by David Morse (The Green Mile, Contact). His smooth voice was a pleasure to listen to, and he handled all the different voices well. Dark, ethereal, other-worldly, and certainly influenced by Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this is easily King’s best horror novel since Lisey’s Story. Don’t miss it.

i-am-legend

This one’s an oldie, but not a moldy. If you’ve only ever seen the film version with Will Smith, do your mind a favor and pick up the book; it’s simply better. Period. Robert Neville is the last human alive. He spends his days disposing of the corpses of the dead. At night he is constantly under siege by bands of vampires (yes vampires, not zombies as the movie made them out to be.) But can he find a cure for the vampire disease? Apocalyptic, lonesome, and scary as hell, I Am Legend will haunt you down to your core. This is horror at its most intimate and cerebral. You won’t forget it.

The Classics (because, college)

the-odyssey

Homer’s most revered work leaps to new life in Fagles’ easy-reading translation. You know the story and you know the characters; isn’t it time you paid them a visit?

beowulf

The oldest English epic never goes out of style. Not really my favorite thing to read, but Grendel is still one of the most terrifying monsters of all time. It’s worth a read for this fact alone.

inferno

Ciardi’s translation is considered canon and for good reason. The man devoted his life to translating Dante, a fact that rings true through every page. If you’ve always pushed Inferno to the back of your classics-reading list because it’s just too difficult, miserable, or whatever, then bare down and get to it. This is my favorite classic novel (poem). Dante’s journey through Hell is soul-screaming scary, and the truths it holds in its pages are universal. This isn’t the most poetic version I’ve read, but it is the best for the absolute ease of reading Ciardi made it to be. There’s a reason this one will never go away; isn’t it time you found out why?

phantastes

Before The Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia, there was Phantastes. MacDonald’s vision of Faërie is part fairy tale, part mythopoeic, and pure escapism. He wrote it because his other more “serious work” wasn’t paying the bills , so he hoped his little “fairy tale” might help out. Thank God he did, because I’m not sure the Fantasy genre would be around today had he not paved the way for it to happen. Want to see where Tolkien and Lewis drew their inspiration from? This is it.

Literature (or drama, if you like)

the-sunset-limited

Oh boy. McCarthy. The fastest book I’ve ever read (3 hours from beginning to end.) God, suicide, Atheism, Nihilism, Christ, Purgatory, Heaven, Hell; all in the course of two people talking. This book disturbed me long after I put it down. So I picked it up again a few days later and did it all over again. More disturbing the second time around. White tries to kill himself by jumping in front of a subway train. Black saves him. Black brings White back to his apartment. They talk. That’s it. Devoid of punctuation, five-dollar words, and any filler; the hardest, easy read I’ve ever encountered. McCarthy will make you face how you feel about life, death, religion, and the afterlife head-on. Caution: Once into this one, there is no stopping.                                                                                                                                      It will shake you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

flowers-for-algernon

Flowers for Algernon has been on most high school reading lists for decades. Somehow, though, it was never on mine. Charlie Gordon is mentally handicapped. He has trouble with communication, understanding, and a whole host of other psychological deficiencies; at least what society says are deficiencies. Charlie has an operation to make him smart. In fact, he becomes a genius. I wish I could say that he stays that way, but he doesn’t. Neither does the lab-mouse Algernon who mirrors Charlie’s mental development, and eventual decay, throughout the whole story. FFA is a scathing indictment on how our culture views and treats the mentally handicapped, whom at the time it was written (novella ’59, novel ’66) were called “retardets.” Does it still hold true today? You’ll be asking that yourself when your done reading this; that is, after you put your heart back into your chest.

breakfast-of-champions

If you’ve read Vonnegut before, chances are that you’ve already read this. If not, don’t start here. This is my least favorite Vonnegut book. The usual wit, sarcasm, an acidic condemnations inherent in Vonnegut’s prose are there, but the story sucks. A Sci-Fi writer finds out that a car salesman is taking his books as real world truth. That’s fine and all but Vonnegut gets so wrapped up in accosting, well, everything that I just didn’t care what was happening in the story. Nor does Vonnegut devote much time to telling the tale, either. I hate to say it, but Vonnegut just comes across as a crotchety old-man that sees no hope for the human race. I’m not saying there isn’t some truth in that, but I don’t want to read an author bitch and moan about it for several hundred pages. If you want vintage Vonnegut, read Slaughterhouse Five or Cat’s Cradle.

Thriller (crime, suspense, mystery…guns ‘n stuff)

chasing-the-dime

Another audiobook version (I’ve got a long commute to school.) Michael Connelly is one of my favorite Thriller writers. All his books are extremely fast paced and well thought out. When I pick up a Connelly thriller, I know I’m going to get a twisting story (usually a who-dun-it in some way or the other), memorable characters, and a quick, break-neck ride. That’s exactly what this one is. Henry Pierce, a mega-minded chemistry expert and millionaire entrepreneur, moves into a new apartment. He keeps getting calls for someone named Lilly on the phone at his new place. This leads him down the darker side of on-line escort services and corporate espionage. A fun mystery with a few cool twists and turns. Not as good as say, The Lincoln Lawyer, but I still dig it.

Raylan.jpg

Raylan is a novel based on one of Elmore Leonard’s favorite characters, Raylan Givens. This was an audiobook as well, and reader Brian D’Arcy James holds his own with a slew of different character voices.This is a novel, but it could easily be broken up into separate stories. There are pieces about kidney thieves, and marijuana/Oxycontin bandits, and of course some murders of Harlan County’s (his favorite place to write about) back-county citizenry, which all tie into a cohesive whole. If you’ve seen the TV show Justified then you are adamantly familiar with Raylan Givens and Harlan County. Favorites like Dewy Crow and Boyd Crowder are back for this one, and if you know who those characters are then undoubtedly you will be running to the bookstore to pick this one up. If not, you can’t get much better crime-fiction than anything by Elmore Leonard. You’ll like him. Promise.

Non-fiction (mostly Memoir, with just a smidge of writing craft)

on-writing

Yup, I agree with all the comments on the jacket; this is the best book on the craft of writing out there. If you count yourself a writer and haven’t read this yet, then you’re really missing out. Not just a book on craft, but also a memoir on how writing has affected King’s life, and conversely how his life has influenced the writing. Consider this mandatory and go get it. It’s a reference book that’s actually fun to read. Enough said.

land-of-enchantment

Land of Enchantment is a memoir about domestic abuse. Stein’s story will upset you and make you feel what she went through. It’s not a terribly original memoir but the material she covers is handled well. If you like memoirs of this ilk then you could do worse than LOE. For a in-depth analysis and critique, please read my full book review in the upcoming (soon!) November 2016 issue of Hippocampus Magazine.

Well, that’s it folks. Hope you liked it. Agree or disagree with any of my flash reviews? Got some recommendations of your own? The comment box awaits…

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A Child’s View: Reviewing “The Circuit”

Francisco Jiménez grew up as a child of illegal Mexican-immigrant farm laborers who worked and migrated through California’s agricultural system. In his book The Circuit: stories from the life of a migrant child, he recounts his family’s saga of transient living through the eyes of his childhood self.

The main theme, or foundation of all his family’s woes, is migration. From it, his family experienced extreme poverty, hunger, and racism. Jiménez could have wrote exclusively about these things, and to be sure there is a fair amount of that in the story, but the bulk of what he focused on was how the migratory lifestyle influenced his growth as an adolescent. The feelings of isolation against anyone outside his family, the absolute importance of that family sticking together, and the power of education were all profound factors that shaped his life.

The perpetual migration Jiménez had to deal with resulted in his inability to form close and personal relationships with anyone outside of his immediate family. That’s not to say that he didn’t try, or that he didn’t have these friendships for short periods of time, but the constant moving of his family and other migrant families within the Circuit (a name given to California’s various agricultural locals where migrants worked) cut short any hope of lifelong relationships. We first see the damaging effects this has on Jiménez when he goes to meet his friend Miguelito, whom he had met in one of the work camps: “I went around to the side of the cabin and peaked through the window. The cabin was completely empty. My heart sank into my stomach.” Jiménez had just played with this boy the day before, but in an instant, he was gone, and it crushed him.

We see this pattern repeated again with his friend Carl and with his favorite teacher Mr. Lema, only these times it is Jiménez that is leaving instead of his friends. Either way, the possibility of forging lasting relations with others was simply not there. Therefore, the only constant Jiménez ever had was his family.

Throughout the novel the importance of the whole family pitching in for the common good is stressed. While living in Tent City, a labor camp owned by a strawberry farm, Jiménez writes about his pregnant mother pitching in for the familial collective as she was able: “To make ends meet, Mamá cooked for twenty farm workers… She would get up at four o’clock every morning, seven days a week, to make the tortillas for both meals [lunch and supper].” Try getting up at 4am even once a week and make breakfast for 20 grown men, now add being pregnant into that equation! She was as tough as they come, and so was Papá.

Like Mamá, Papá worked his fingers to the bone to provide for his family. Repeatedly we are told that he worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, and after one job was done he (usually) had the next one ready to go. His brother Roberto worked just as hard as his father, doing the same work as well. Even Jiménez himself, before he was old enough to contribute monetarily to the family, would watch his infant sister Trampita while the rest of his family went off to work. In short, everyone had a job to do because their survival depended on it. Be that as it may, and knowing well that losing one worker from their family would terribly weaken their chances of survival, Mamá and Papá still sent Jimenez and his siblings to school when possible. A choice that would forever change the author’s life.

When Jiménez first entered school he knew no English whatsoever. He describes his experience of trying to understand his first teacher, Miss Scalapino, teach a lesson: “I was very tired of hearing Miss Scalapino talk because the sounds made no sense to me. I thought that perhaps by paying close attention, I would begin to understand, but I did not. I only got a headache, and that night, when I went to bed, I heard her voice in my head.” Trying to understand another culture’s language, without at least a smidge of training, is downright brutal. I understood where Jiménez was coming from as I have been to many countries throughout the world (in my Navy days) and couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was. It’s a horrible, awful, and rather demeaning feeling to be that different from everyone else around you. But that didn’t stop Jiménez from seeing that education was indeed his way out of the migratory life.

It took a while for Jiménez to learn the English language and understand the lessons being taught to him, but once he had even somewhat of grasp of it – he used it. While he was working in the fields his mind would go over these lessons, almost as if they were his scapegoat and savior from the back-breaking labor he was doing at the time: “I [then] marked the spelling rules I wanted to memorize that day. As I picked grapes, I went over them in my mind, looking at my notes only when I had to. This made the time go faster.” This “mental escape” mentality that he adopted got him through his long, hard, laborious days.

The Circuit is a child’s view of a very cold, very adult world. Jiménez tells his story effortlessly and true. Even though it ends with his impending deportation, I can take solace in the fact that this is the first in a series of memoirs by the author, and that he eventually does make it in America as a college professor. Sad, infuriating, hopeful, and even uplifting at times; The Circuit has something for everyone. The prose are simple (no telescoping, literary magnifying glass here) and the language is clear. I enjoyed reading about Jiménez’s life, and look forward to reading the next chapter of it.

Fallen Jackdaw’s of the Past: Reviewing Angela’s Ashes

Frank McCourt had one astonishing life. In his memoir, Angela’s Ashes, McCourt recounts his tumultuous upbringing in glaring and finite detail. Replete with minute and harrowing details about his treacherous youth, Ashes will leave you gasping, crying, and laughing throughout its pages.

The main elements of his life that McCourt seems to focus on are the relationships he has with his flaky and eccentric father, as well as the close, though taunt, one with his mother. We are also treated to poignant and often absurd thoughts on McCourt’s beloved and loathed home of Limerick, Ireland during the late 30’s and early 40’s, as well as the role Catholicism played in his day to day life during this time. The best part, it’s told from a child’s point of view. More precisely, it is McCourt’s view of the world as a young boy; a youth who is struggling to carve out his own path in an often hostile and endlessly perplexing environment.

Young Frank’s father, Malachy McCourt, is one strange bird to say the least. His idea of a good time is to take all the money he has earned that week, blow it at all at the pub getting sauced, come home stinking drunk singing songs of Ireland’s glorious fighting past, and corral Frank and all his brothers out of bed so that they may pledge – to the death – their allegiance to Ireland and no one else. Malachy cannot control his drinking. In a particularly low point in his addiction, he even sells his recently deceased daughter’s baby corpse to people who “do experiments on them” in exchange for drinking money. I’m not sure it’s possible to get much lower than that.

The family leaves New York City for the greener pastures of Limerick, in the South of Ireland. The family hopes that Malachy will be able to find steady work there, and with steady work (hopefully) sobriety will follow. As you might guess, Malachy never really sobers up and the family moves deeper and deeper into poverty. This is not to say that Malachy did not love his family, he did. A man that will suck out the coagulated insides of his sick infant’s nose surely cares for his family. He was just a waif carried on by the wind, and the wind eventually led him to England to work in a factory from which he never fully returned, save for a few brief instances that led to absolutely nothing. The burden to keep the family going was never on Malachy’s head anyway. That illustrious job was for mom, Angela.

Angela McCourt is a trooper. She will do just about anything to keep her kin with her and alive. Death is something that she has dealt with far too often. With the passing of her daughter Margaret, her son Oliver, his twin brother Eugene, and her husband’s un-ceremonial exit from the family, Angela became as tough as leather.

 She waits in line for food coupons from the St. Vincent de Paul society, vowing never to go lower than that to get food, which means visiting the local Dispensary, which she inevitably does. She moves the family from house, to house, to house, etc… all in hopes of giving her loved ones (and herself) some better quality of living than they had before.

At one of these houses, she sleeps with her benefactor, a disgusting man named Laman Griffin. This may seem like a base and vile act, but I argue Angela is doing the only thing left that she can do to save her family from the streets. Unfortunately, Frank doesn’t see it like that and sets off on his own.

Frank thinks that Laman Griffin is “not in a state of grace after the excitement [with his mother] and he’s going to hell.” In fact, Frank has many thoughts on religion. How could he not though? The morals and ethics on Limerick were all based upon Catholicism. McCourt’s meanderings on religious acts and practices are sometimes extremely funny. When young Frank receives his First Communion, he has a bit of trouble with the wafer: “It’s on my tongue. I draw it back. It stuck. I had God glued to the roof of my mouth.” Or afterwards, when he throws up his First Communion breakfast, his Grandma cries “Look at what he did. Thrun up his First Communion breakfast. Thrun up the body and blood of Jesus. I have God in my backyard.”  Other times, though, Frank’s Catholic beliefs leave him cold, sad, and self-loathing.

Frank loses his virginity to Theresa Carmody, who’s a young lady that is shut-in by her “walking consumption.” Shortly after this, Theresa dies and Frank feels responsible for sending her soul to hell. He thinks “Theresa is a torment to me…Every time I pass the graveyard I feel the sin growing in me…There he is, there’s Frank McCourt, the dirty thing that sent Theresa Carmody to hell.” He’s confused about his burgeoning sexuality (he’s a teenager now), even afraid to confess his “sins” to the local Priests. He says they’re always preaching about “millstones and the doom,” and that he “will have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea” for his transgressions. The culture of Ireland just ain’t right for Frank; America is the place for him, and he scrounges and saves, and eventually makes it back to the land where he was born.

I wanted Frank to leave Ireland – I needed Frank to leave Ireland. I believe McCourt’s first-person style, from his younger self’s point of view, made me feel like I was Frank’s closest friend and confidant. Basically, when Frank was leaving Ireland for good, I was leaving Ireland for good. I really got wrapped up in Frank’s character and felt emotionally invested in his plight. It’s no wonder the book won the Pulitzer Prize – it’s an absolute treasure.

I wonder if, when McCourt received his Pulitzer, he felt that he’d finally killed all those Jackdaws hovering over Oliver’s grave. After all, this whole memoir is a field of mocking Jackdaws attempting to harangue Frank into a life he was never intended to live, or into a grave he was never meant to fill. I think that bag of rocks is empty now Mr. McCourt, and the graveyard is, indeed, littered with the fallen Jackdaws of your past.

Oh, and what’s a Jackdaw? I can’t give everything away, now can I…