27. Carrie

by Stephen King

This is far more intense than I remembered it. It's a great little novel about a perpetually picked on young woman who happens to be telekinetic. All hell breaks loose but not before we learn about Carrie's horrific upbringing and the abuse her peers inflict upon her daily. I rooted for Carrie all the way through the mayhem. What an ass kicker!

Makes the movie seem like a cardboard representation of one of King's most potent stories. This is before he was writing screenplays in the guise of novels.

26. The Taggerung

by Brian Jacques

This is a fantasy book recommended by one of my students. He said, "I think since you make us read books, we should be able to make you read books." I said ok and he brought this book in the next day. I'm glad I read it.

It's the 14th book in Jacques's Redwall Series. Good stuff. Though that's all I have to say on the matter.
A hissing in the wood pile.

25. Beasts

by Joyce Carol Oats

The only other of her nearly 50 books that I’ve read is a memorable novella called Zombie, which is a disturbingly intimate first person narrative of a serial killer who is at the peak of his game. Good stuff. Beasts, also a novella, which is why I chose to read it (not a big Oats fan), is not quite as powerful.

Beasts is two things: a cliché and a weak gothic horror novella, both of which have been done a thousand times before with far greater affect.

The cliché: The setting is 1975 at a small liberal arts college in culturally uptight New England. The protagonist is a young budding poet whose parents just divorced, leaving her adrift in a world of intellectual, sexual and emotional predators. By predator I mean a good looking, uber-bohemian college professor who turns the girls in his poetry class on by wearing dirty jeans instead of slacks and tweed, smoking a lot while he effortlessly and offhandedly lectures about art and “going for the jugular” in poetry, you know-keeping it real, and reading them titillating D.H. Lawrence filth.

So this young woman becomes infatuated by the anti-establishment college professor and of course he ravages her like a beast (that smells like cigarettes and ). Wait, the cliché is not complete. He has a sultry French sculptress wife who also ravages the student. Yes, a threesome in the mid-70s. It goes on for a while as we explore the, “entwined boldness and vulnerability of young women” (LA Times).

The gothic horror: Turns out this couple has done this to multiple girls. And they tend to dope them up in order to photograph them performing sexual acts for a porn magazine. Ah, the posh New England elite unwittingly becoming the objects of trashy porn mags. Also, throughout the novel there is an arsonist who keeps trying to burn buildings on campus. This may shock you, but that little tidbit becomes quite meaningful as the novel reaches its climax.

Don’t read it.

24. Aloft

by Chang-rae Lee

I endured this one. At once it is a fine example of Chang-rae Lee's mastery of the language of the heart and a story about a boring man approaching sixty on Long Island. All told it is a ok work of fiction on a subject that didn't interest me.

23. Los Versos del Capitan

by Pablo Neruda

This is Neruda's umpteenth book of love poems. It's especially good for me because it has both the original Spanish and the English translation on the opposite page. I can read the Spanish, but miss a great deal of the layers of meaning. Neruda has been on of the world's most celebrated poets for decades. He's still wringing out the words.

While this old man's poetry can be a bit chauvinistic, and romantic in the old Spanish way, it is beautiful.

Here's one called "La Infinita":

Ves estas manos? Han medido
la tierra, han separado
los miserales y los celeales,
han hecho la laz y la guerra,
han derribado las distancias
de todos los mares y rios
y sin embargo
cuando te recorren
a ti, pequena,
grano de trigo, alondra,
no alcanzan a abarcarte,
se cansan alcanzando
las palomas gemelas
que reposan o vuelan en tu pecho,
recorren las distancias de tu piernas,
se enrollan en la luz de tu cintura.
Para mi eres tesoro mas cargado
de immensidad que el mar y sus recimos
y eres blanca y azul y extensa como
la tierra en la vendimia.
En ese territorio,
de tus pies a tu frente,
andando, andando, andando,
me pasare la vida.

In English:

The Infinite One

Do you see these hands? They have measured
the earth, the have separated
minerals and cereals,
they have made peace and war,
they have demolished the distances
of all the seas and rivers,
and yet,
when they move over you,
little one,
grain of wheat, swallow,
they can not encompass you,
they are weary seeking
the twin doves
that rest of fly in your breast,
they travel the distances of your legs,
they coil in the light of your waist.
For me you are a treasure more laden
with immensity than the sea and its branches
and you are white and blue and spacious like
the earth at vintage time.
In that territory,
from your feet to your brow,
walking, walking, walking,
I shall spend my life.

22. Winter's Tale

by Mark Helpern

This novel is about the unforgettable character Peter Lake. That’s his name because he didn’t have one. He has beaten time. Well, I think he’s beaten time but you might think that time is an entirely different thing than we thought it was. It’s magical. It’s about Winter for sure.

It’s 750 pages, but came highly recommended so I dove in. Not one page was a waste. It spans over a century in New York City, its harbor, rivers and bays, and the Hudson Valley… and an impossible and yet highly plausible town beyond the valley. In terms of time it’s a lot like the inside back page of a Mad Magazine cover where the image is one thing until you fold along the lines and go “Ahh!”

I fear that evoking thoughts of Mad Magazine might lead you to thinking this novel is not serious. Oh, it's serious. It's serious about love and belonging and adventure and awful, senseless grudges that are fun -- all those things that are proven to scoff at time.

I already loved the city… and the impossible… and messing with time, but this book runs a great distance with those feelings. It’s exceptional.

It’s a very funny, fully engaging tale full of passion, epic love, long held grudges… and a horse that can do extraordinary things. The tale begins with him running away from his stable in Brooklyn over 100 years ago. He’ll be no slave.

Then there’s Peter Lake. Did I mention him?

Helpern is a very gifted writer. If you are tired of the American novel, if you think it has had its day in the sun, pick this one up. There is little convention about it.

21. The Last Great American Hobo

Essay by Dale Maharidge
Photos by Michael Williamson

When he was a teenager, Montana Blackie heard about other teenagers just walking away from their lives and "riding the rails" together. The Great Depression was in full swing when Blackie hopped his first freight train. Sixty years later (at the time of publishing), he still hasn't returned to conventional life. He's a life long hobo by choice. And if the authors of this remarkable little book about his existence can be believed, he is the last of the Depression-era hobos.

This is a beautiful prose and photo essay on Montana Blackie's remarkable existence, which by the 1980s had become nearly impossible to maintain. Society has changed and no longer distinguishes between the homeless and the hobo. It's a tough time to be old. At 76 years old in 1989, he was, "a man out of time and place." During the three years the authors spent with Blackie in the late 1980s, he had built a grand camp along the Sacramento River reminiscent of the 1930s Hoovervilles. As the authors note time and time again, it seemed odd that he would build such an extravagant place when the likelihood that it would be demolished by authorities was very high. But that is Blackie's way.

Blackie says, You've got to maintain, keep your camp clean. Son'bitch can't keep his camp clean, he's no good. Well, I figure I might be on the fucking road, a dirty old filthy bastard, but my place is going to be clean. The old hobos in the old days, they used to be a bindlestiff, that bastard packed everything, and if he was crazy, he had a name for every pot and pan hung on the fucking wire of his tree. The old bindlestiffs are gone. A few around like myself. There's only a few crazy diehard bastards like me around that still motivate [ride rails]. As far as hoboin' goes, it's the same as it used to be. Fuck the idea of steam trains. All they did was change the motivation, that's all. There ain't a damn thing modernized. Still the same old tracks. Same units. Same goddam road, clickity-clack on down the line. Really nothin' has changed over the years. Not for me anyway.

This a well-written, intimate essay that honors a man and his way of life. It's a bit heart breaking, though, since it's clear that the world has changed around Montana Blackie, leaving little room or tolerance for his way of being.

The photos are fantastic. I wish I could share a few here.

Since childhood, I am perpetually drawn to the hobo life.

20. The Postman

by David Brin

Men can be brilliant and strong, they whispered to one another. But men can be mad, as well. And the mad ones can ruin the world.

It is 2012, some sixteen years after all out war sends the world -certainly the United States- into total chaos. Nuclear war destroyed all U.S. cities and left a wake of radiation and fallout that killed off the vast majority of the population. But the U.S. may have recovered as a nation if large groups of violent "survivalists," or vicious, opportunistic pseudo-Darwinists, hadn't organized to plunder what was left... Damn those Holnists to hell!

The story is about the unlikely hero, Gordon Krantz, who changes things through a lie he initially starts telling in order to ensure his survival. He is a survivor, a wanderer, in search of some semblance of civilization in a land rife with separatist violence, starvation and... well, you get the idea. Just as he is finally about to meet his own end he happens upon an abandoned U.S. mail truck with the skeleton of it's driver still in the seat. He takes the deceased postman's uniform and two bags of 16 year old mail and sets out with a new scheme to trade the illusion of a restored postal system -and thereby the beginnings of a "Restored United States"- for food and shelter. He underestimates the old, worn out uniform's power as a symbol of hope.

I really enjoyed this book. It's an exciting plot. It also has some unique insights as a work of social commentary. If you are poring through the catalogue of good post apocalypse fiction, this one should be somewhere on your list.

I didn't want to mention the movie, which was lame, and I certainly didn't want to say the obvious "the book is better", but something needs to be said about how incredibly screwed up the movie is. It is an unprecedented butchering of an excellent novel.

Anyway, this is a pretty exciting novel. I recommend it.

19. My Name is Asher Lev

By Chaim Potok

Make even greater works to make up for the pain you will cause.

This one struck my heart. It’s about the becoming of an artist who must reconcile his own nature with that of his orthodox Jewish tradition and beliefs. Asher Lev is a Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn. Told by the painter himself, his story begins when he is five and runs well into his adult life as a successful artist. But his success did not come without causing great pain to his family and community… and therefore himself. It’s all necessary, though, in order for him to become an honest/great artist.

Millions of people can draw and paint well, but how many have an eye for the essence of things, and dare to make pictures that depict the world as they truly see and feel it? How many Chagalls are there? Picassos? Matisses? Levs?

I am a bit speechless, as I just finished the book and am somewhat blown away. I can't be objective. It’s a very beautiful novel, one that might usurp something on my top ten list.

David, have you read this one?

18. Survival in Auschwitz (or If This is a Man, it’s original title)

By Primo Levi

I am finally almost caught up on my book reviews!

Thanks, Walkerp, for recommending this one. What a remarkable account of this man’s survival during his ten-month imprisonment at the German death camp, Auschwitz. Primo Levi, an Italian Jew, was twenty-five when he was arrested by Italian fascists and transported to Auschwitz. His story is an extremely valuable document of the systematic cruelty and genocide engineered by Nazi Germany.

I can’t help but compare Levi’s accounts with that of Eli Weisel, having read them only a month apart. Both were at Auschwitz at the same time. In terms of fact, both tell the same story. But they are very different men. One thing that is remarkable about Levi’s account is the extent to which thinking contributed to his survival, the thinking of a practical, humane, scientific mind. Sure, like Weisel, Levi takes care to acknowledge biological strength and incredible luck, and the grace of many men who could have just as easily hoarded life for themselves. But it is his ability to think, to remain level-headed, that is key to remaining human, and ultimately to survival, in the chaos of random, unconscionable evil. His is a testimony of the indestructibility of the human spirit.

An example of Levi’s thinking (it’s a bit out of context, but…):

Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both of these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places a limit on every joy, but also on every grief…

Thinking. He often felt he was thinking too much during those ten months, but the man who thinks too much is inseparable from the survivor.

Like so many survivors of genocide, Levi’s morality was challenged to the extreme. He argues that the ordinary world’s sense of morality (what’s right and wrong, or good and evil) don’t stand a chance at a place like Auschwitz. That sounds bleak… and yet some may survivors (and they weren’t many. Two thirds of Europe’s Jews were murdered) returned with a deeper sense of humanity and purpose. Put simply,

There comes to light the existence of two particularly well differentiated categories among men – the saved and the drowned.

His question, our question, is one of responsibility for all those people.

Among the things that have been bothering me as a read through Holocaust literature this year is that we have no equal account from the other side, from a Nazi who desired to come clean. It’s one thing to talk in near-hyperbole of the evil Nazi Germany, but what of the individual giving or taking orders at a place like Auschwitz? The cruelty. The insanity. How can that be explained?

Another aspect of morality that I find profound is the discovery of how impossible it is for these survivors (Levi and Weisel) to think that their God had anything to do with either the atrocity or their survival. They come out very different believers, much more human believers. Just after a “selection,” a routine event whereby prisoners are selected for slaughter, Levi and others who survived yet another close call, have a moment of reprieve:

Now everyone is busy scraping the bottom of his bowl with his spoon so as not to waste the last drops of the soup; a confused, metallic clatter, signifying the end of the day. Silence slowly prevails and then, from my bunk on the top row, I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen.
Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow [he’s been selected] and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that the next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again?
If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer.

This is a must read for those wanting to understand the Holocaust. I also recommend it to pretty much everyone else.

17. Blackwater

by Kerstin Ekman

My dad gave me this one by Swedish writer Kerstin Ekman. It’s a mystery/thriller with some conventions we Americans might be surprised by.

Set in the 1970s, in the mountains of Sweden, there is a murder. The protagonist is a 30-something mother who has decided to leave her life as a teacher in Stockholm and trek it up to live with her former student-turned-boyfriend on a commune in the mountains surrounding the very rural town of Blackwater. She arrives to encounter a cast of characters who are less friendly than she imagined they would be. The local store owner and his wife seem put off by her and her daughter’s presenence, despite the appearance of poverty. While at this local store she also encounters a group of crude mountain boys who are pissing, throwing their empties, etc., just as crude mountain boys might.

Ekman is a master at creating situations or encounters that are not quite what is reasonably expected. This style creates an often imperceptible stress or discomfort in the reader. That is even before the protagonist happens upon the aftermath of a brutal murder scene at a remote campsite.

Some things that make this novel interesting to an American reader:

- Taking her time. As a thriller, this novel plods along, taking its sweet time as we explore all facets of a strikingly unromantic Swedish mountain life.

The forest. I felt deep in the forest myself. It got under my skin. In this way, the novel is excellent writing.

- The clear distinctions between and biases among Swedes, Finns and Norwegians.

- Life among crude, brutish mountain men.

- The very frank language of sex and sexuality. This was great.

- A massive cast of characters. I’m not used to so many suspects, and characters with cross-purposes.

As the reader of a thriller, I got lost. She tries to accomplish too many things. A big, unstoppable conglomerate is leveling the mountainsides as folks try to establish a commune. Mixed into this small, problematic population are those trying to occupy the land only to protect it from the tree-killers. Then there are the hikers. And many, many the locals. Aside from placing a vast array of characters in proximity to each other, it’s never clear what most of them have to do with the murders. It is almost as if the novel is social commentary in the guise of a thrillers. Well, that’s not so bad.

16. August: Osage County

A play by Tracy Letts

Mike: Beautifully and cleverly written but I did not like the family.
The Dad: What’s not to like? She takes pills and I drink. That’s who we are.
Mike: And your kids, who have all grown up into the types of people I avoid like the air of a stranger's bad fart? Your family is a catalogue of types of assholes. Why should I care what happens to them?
The Dad (pours himself another drink): Can’t help you with that. Cummings once said…


Mike: You were a poet…
The Dad: One fucking book of poems. Sold like crazy, and mostly among the academic elite. In fact, I believe every copy is yellowing on their office shelves between a whole lot of the same. I’m not a poet.
Mike: Please tell me you have been writing in secret all those years and that it’s just a matter of your asshole children and their asshole husbands, ex-husbands and boyfriends on the side happening to never find it all…
The Dad: I told you, I drink. She takes pills and I drink… and speak caustically to my dear, beloved pill-sogged wife…
Mike: Oddly, that’s the best part of the play. You’re all fucked.
The Dad: Yes. We’re all fucked.

Mike: I don't like when writers create poets.

15. In the Country of Last Things

by Paul Auster

I liked this novel. It is in the form of the young Anna Blume’s letter home to an old childhood friend. It is an account of Anna’s experiences in a city (probably New York) that has fallen into chaos and destitution. Its inhabitants have depleted nearly all resources, buildings have burned, decayed or been destroyed by pillagers and roving gangs. Many streets are blocked by rubble and the bridges are guarded by a government/police that changes routinely. Stealing is so rampant that it is no longer a crime. There are corpses everywhere, most of which are the result of either starvation or suicide.

The somewhat myopic but compelling view we get is straight from Anna’s memory as she writes to beat death. As she admits, this is a flawed memory under the stress of being in constant survival mode. Anna travels to this mess of a city from a seemingly comfortable life somewhere outside. She does so in search of her journalist brother who disappeared while on assignment for the town’s local newspaper. You might be left wondering what was the state of things in the place she left to go to the city? Well, me too. How was it that the city fell into chaos but everything was okay at home outside the city? In fact Anna’s letter home doesn’t answer many questions, such as: How long ago did the Troubles begin? Were did they begin? What caused it, or was it as gradual as it is these days? Of course answering these questions in satisfactory detail would make this a very different book.

-- I enjoyed her thoughts on scavenging but wished for more detail about the actual scavenging. Well, there were pockets of really great detail – like when she goes to buy shoes from that guy’s cousin, or when she and an equally emaciated friend had to carry a corpse to the roof and throw it off— but overall the book read just like… it was written by someone who struggled to remember the details. Of course she is writing from an extremely faulty memory, as she states repeatedly, and under incredible pressure.

Other thoughts:

-- Why the awkward interjection of third person in the beginning? Is this just a third person omniscient due to an author’s lack of confidence, or does it suggest that her letter/notebook was actually found and transcribed?

--One of the great things (there are many) about the novel: Auster explores sex and sexuality in the post-apocalyptic world. I’ve only read a dozen books of this genre but the absence of this most important part of human life is glaring. I applaud the effort!

-- Once she finally shifts her thinking to the ways of survival it was hard for her to stomach the “service to others” mentality of some friends who help her after she is seriously injured in a fall. There are also a few gems of thought on survival in terms of separating eating and pleasure. Just one example of the psychological effects such a reality.

-- I really like the ending. The hope and trepidation.

This is an excellent little book. I recommend it for those that like the post-apoc genre, and for those who are simply looking for an excellent wordsmith. I’ll definitely read more of his stuff. Any suggestions?

14. Ten Little Indians

by Sherman Alexie

Thanks Dan for your review of this one, and sending it to me. This is a hearty, moving collection of short stories. As is usual, Alexie explores so many facets of Indian identity, particularly that of Spokane Indians. Reading these stories I was struck once again by how much I am not Indian, yet I connected so deeply with so many of his characters. He has a gift for pushing readers like me away and drawing me closer simultaneously. The lesson is: listen. Don’t pretend to know. Just listen. Just meet these characters on their own terms, in their own states of being without framing it in the usual bullshit white people tend to frame things in.

Alexie’s characters are some of the most complete, honest characters I’ve experienced, ever.

I am somewhat of an expert on the short story, which means, in part, that I am aware that most of them are the result of trying too hard. But the power in Alexie’s short stories comes from his poetical powers and a profound love for people.

The seventh story, “Do You now Where I Am?,” is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. It is the story of a life-long love told from the voice of an elderly man in total awe of his wife of 30-something years. He looks back to their early days and a stupid, selfish mistake made while the two rescue a lost cat, a mistake that has profound consequences. It is ultimately a story about her decades long awesomeness. It’s so human, so absolutely like what really happens.

Here’s one that made it’s way into The New Yorker. Another excellent story with his typical humor, voice, and frankness about how sometimes things go the way we like, other times they don’t.

“Do Not Go Gentle,” is another that deeply moving story. There’s the laughter, yes, but also the bluntness, the candor, that cuts to the heart of the human experience. Powerful stuff. Read ‘em and weep. Unless Dan wants it back I’ll send it along to the first that asks for it.

13. Black and Kinky Amongst Brown Waves

by Margaux Delotte-Bennett

This is an original play/performance piece by my friend Margaux. She spent almost a year in India on an internship for her MSW program at Galliadet, a deaf university in Washington, D.C. As a black woman in India, she experienced aloneness and, to some degree, alienation, for the first time. It was a hard trip, but one in which she made friends with herself.

This is an exceptional performance piece but I shall not say much as it's in the early drafting stage and, of course, has not been performed. I'll post here when she schedules the performances!

I'm very proud of her and am glad to be a part of the process toward its creation.

12. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, II: And Here My Troubles Began

By Art Spiegelman

I wonder why Spiegelman opted to make it two separate books. The first book is wholly incomplete without this second and both combined would only be approximately 270 pages. Maus I, was the first half of the story of survival of Vladek and Anja Spiegelman, charting their desperate progress from prewar Poland Auschwitz. Maus II is the continuation, in which the Vladek survives the camp and is eventually reunited with his wife (these are not spoilers since you know this happens from the beginning of the first book).

Aside from the decision to make this extremely valuable personal account of Vladek Spiegelman’s survival into an allegory, which I think weakens it as an important historical account, this second part is as compelling and gut wrenching as the first.

I am going to use Maus I and II in my 8th grade Humanities classes during the last cycle of this year as we explore World War Two. It was a toss-up between Wiesel’s Night and Spiegelman’s Maus I and II. I really wish we had time for both of these important works!

Maus wins for a few reasons but the main one is that it is equally about the son’s struggle to understand what his parents went through. I feel like we are all trying to understand what happened and Art’s voice really rings true.

And they helped further expand my understanding of what comic books can accomplish.

I say read them. They are great reading and really important.

11. Night

by Elie Wiesel

How can this be true?

From his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:

" And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent... We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere..."

10. Indian Killer

by Sherman Alexie

This one is a thriller with sometimes brutal, sometimes mystical prose. It is haunted by hundred plus year old Indian rage, at times a sort of forceful undercurrent in the novel and at others the very topic being discussed by the characters. But just like other thrillers, I was left in the dark about the awful culprit's identity and motives. Good stuff.

It's set in Seattle and the nearby Spokane Indian reservation, both of which are dealing with on-going festering tensions between whites and Indians. Someone is committing brutal murders with a knife, scalping the victims and leaving two owl feathers behind as a signature. Is it an Indian or some nutter trying to make it seem like an Indian did it? Alexie introduces a variety of characters who might have motive. All of them are either Indian, white people pretending to be Indians, white people that hate Indians, or, in the case of the main character, an Indian raised by white people (and who doesn't know what tribe he's from). As is the case with all of Alexie's work, no matter what genre he dabbles in, this is a novel deeply immersed in the problems of Indian identity.

Alexie is not known for this type of thriller, but he does a great job building suspense and creating some interesting/horrific crimes. It is a page-turner and sufficiently weird and inexplicable for me to have enjoyed it like all of his work. Like the title, for example. I spent the whole novel wondering if the title should be Killer Indian or Indian Killer. I won't say any more about that, though. That should be your problem as I do recommend this one for sure.

A young Indian to a white college professor who is irresponsibly teaching a "Native American Literature" course:

"If Crazy Horse, or Geronimo, or Sitting Bull came back...They would start a war....They'd listen to some dumb-shit Disney song and feel like hurting somebody....if the Ghost Dance worked ...All you white people would disappear. All of you. If those dead Indians came back to life...They'd kill you. They'd gut you and eat you heart."

9. Maus: A Survivor's Tale

by Art Spiegelman

This graphic novel is a really impressive work of art and biography. Spiegelman tells the story of his strained relationship with his father as well as his father’s experience during Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust.

For some reason I want to write about the story within the story (or comic book within the comic book) about Spiegelman’s mother’s suicide, and his own subsequent bout with madness. It is a dark and powerful moment in the story, and tells more of the effects such a war has had on generations of family. But it is Vladek’s (Art’s father) story, after all, that is being told here. Interestingly, this is an unsentimental depiction of his father, who, it seems, was quite a bastard. Maybe that’s what such experience does to a man. And, perhaps his son, since Spiegelman’s own depiction of himself is one of a son who is only interested in visiting his father to gather details for his book.

This is a great book. It’s a quick, powerful read that will leave you thinking about the extraordinary pain and suffering endured by those who survived the Holocaust.

How can we humans get to a point where this type genocide is a thing of the past?

8. The Light of Men

by Andrew Salmon

First, this is all the fault of the folks over at Doc's 50.

I don't read much science fiction. I think the closest I've gotten is Vonnegut without feeling like I need more from the genre. I'm not sure I'd categorize Salmon's The Light of Men as such - sci fi is way too narrow for this one -- as it is quite a gripping novel in many ways. Salmon's style is unnervingly straightforward, which, once experienced, is just right for a novel set in a Nazi concentration camp. It's very effective at bringing a sense hunger, brutality, exhaustion and injustice close to the reader. In fact, it turns out that there is another very significant reason for this matter-of-fact style choice once we discover the true nature of the protagonist.

But it bothered me that, considering the setting, the protagonist's purpose was so narrow. Though he does go through a sort of limited transformation and revises his mission. Also, as an escapee from Christianity I found the religious parallels and allusions a bit... distracting. Fortunately Aaron goes through this same transformation in his logic as well. These are the only negatives for me, and they are matters of personal preference. I really like the book.

Damn, it's tough to discuss this without spoiling things.

I was definitely captivated by the question of this mysterious guy's identity and why he is so aloof as he steps off the crowded death-laden train and first encounters the horrors of the camp. I often flinched from the stark presentation of atrocities and at the same time leaned toward reading on to see what might happen next. It's a solid story, and a unique one.

The Light of Men is certainly a bit horror, has a healthy dose of sci fi, but its power is in its overwhelming sense of humanity... which is ironic since... oh, damn, I won't say a thing.

Definitely give this one a read. Hopefully you'll easily find it in bookstores soon because it deserves attention. Until then, you can find it on Amazon. Anyone find it somewhere else?

Other reviews of this book can be found at Mount Benson Report, Olman's Fifty, Doc's 50, and are soon to come at Jar's 50, and Meezy's Blog.

7. The Sea Wolf

by Jack London

Didn't like it. Well, I enjoyed reading about a turn of the century gentleman suffering so greatly. Having never worked a day in his life, he finds himself aboard a schooner headed for Japan to hunt seals. This is a result of a highly implausible accident in San Francisco bay between this man's ferry and a steamer. The crew on The Ghost pluck him from the freezing bay waters but refuse to drop him off. Instead they sail out of the bay with the wealthy wimp and are at sea for most of the story.

The gentleman (on land, at least), Humphrey Van Weyden, becomes "Hump" the cabin boy/dishwasher at sea. This scene where the incredibly brutish and violent Captain Wolf Larsen is interrogating the gentleman his crew just saved, was fun:

"What do you do for a living?"
I confess I had never had such a question asked me before, nor had I ever canvassed it. I was quite taken aback, and before I could find myself had sillily stammered, "I-I am a gentleman."
His lip curled in a swift sneer.
"I have worked. I do work," I cried impetuously, as though he were my judge and I required vindication, and at the same time very much aware of my arrant idiocy in discussing the subject at all.
"For your living?"
There was something so imperative and masterful about him that I was quite beside myself-- "rattled," as Furuseth would have termed it, like a quaking child before a stern schoolmaster.
"Who feeds you?" was his next question.
"I have an income," I answered stoutly, and could have bitten my tongue the next instant. "All of which, you will pardon my observing, has nothing whatsoever to do with what I wish to see you about."
But he disregarded my protest.
"Who earned it? Eh? I thought so. Your father. You stand on dead men's legs. You've never had any of your own. You couldn't walk alone between two sunrises and hustle the meat for your belly for three meals. Let me see your hand."

That stuff is fun but the stormy, tortured, brutally primitive ship's captain seems annoyingly cardboard in the shadow of Captain Ahab. Captain Wolf Larsen seems to have little reason for his excessive brutality, excessively muscular body or for his desire to be at the helm of a seal hunting schooner full of men who'd love to see him dead.

Sorry, I much prefer the character of the wolf in White Fang than the one in The Sea Wolf. I much prefer the clarity and experiential nature of the ways of London's wild than the overblown primitivist/industrialist (?) philosophy bantered broodingly in the cabin of his ship, one that felt more like a stage setting than a schooner out on the Pacific.

I guess I'm really dissatisfied after my great experiences reading Call of the Wild and White Fang. I'm loving London, but I'm staying on land.

6. White Fang

by Jack London

After reading The Call of the Wild, White Fang was just begging for a turn. I'm definitely on a Jack London kick.

White Fang is about a wolf born in the wild, but through unusual circumstances ends up in captivity where he endures unimaginable cruelties for much of his life. This renders White Fang a relatively tamed (obeys his cruel master, but wishes for the chance to tear out his throat) but violent, ferocious outcast of a wolf. He becomes the formidable enemy of the "man-gods" and his own kind. It's the latter that makes this a heartbreaking story.

Once again London's thoughts on the ongoing symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs are conveyed in the epic journey of a single canine. First is London's fascination with how dogs lend themselves to human mastery. White Fang depicts the extremes of human cruelty and abuse, and later kindness and love, from the point of view of a wolf. One great thing about London's writing his how his wolves think like wolves. Dogs and wolves don't think like humans. Instinct drives them and the discipline of experience teaches them what to do and what not to do. They don't share the "wide vision" of humans. London believes that wild beasts get quite as much pleasure as pain out of the life that they are intended to live. It is under the brutality of humans that White Fang is nearly driven to madness. And yet it is the love of another human master that saves this wolf in the end. Hmm. Man and dog.

Although London presents the wild's feral nature as something separate from human nature, White Fang is torn between the impulse to fidelity to (and loyalty safety and security of) his "man-god," and the ever-beckoning call of the Wild. Both are in his nature but, like all creatures, White Fang's nature is like clay molded by his environment.

I'm no expert but I'll dare say that as a biographer of wild animals, London has no match. This story is incredibly satisfying.

I'm left with a question: does the wild call because it is the opposite of a civilization we blame for what ails us (so Romantic!), or is the call something that humans instinctively feel? I'm stuck on this one. But I do know that The Call of the Wild and White Fang have stirred some instincts in me that are not fit for New York City living!


"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug." - Mark Twain

5. Wilderness

by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle is a favorite Irish author in this household. Among his best novels are Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, A Star Called Henry and the Barrytown series: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. WIlderness, however, is a "young readers" book about a Dublin family that books an adventurer vacation in Finland.

It's really only the mother and two sons that go, while dad and daughter have the good sense to stay home. The daughter, Grainne, is to meet her biological mother for the first time since mom abandoned her in early childhood, while the boys and step mom travel to the icy north. Both stories are told in alternating chapters.

The boys have a thrill a minute as they bounce around in sleds pulled by hearty huskies. Grainne's experience at home is a sort of emotional wilderness as she reunites with her mother. Part roaring adventure, part family drama.

You get the idea. It's fun.

4. The Call of the Wild

by Jack London

Buck. Hell of a dog.

This is one of those that I didn’t read when I was supposed to in my intellectually degenerate youth. I really wish I’d given this one a shot back then, though, as it would have affirmed my repressed animal intuition, just as being thrust into the Yukon wilderness did for the domesticated Buck.

Yep, the protagonist is a dog. Buck grew up a privileged dog on the property of a judge in Cailfornia, enjoying a life alongside his owners on hunting trips and warming his paws at the fireplace. You know, the sort of hearty, happy life a shepherd/St. Bernard mix might dream of. That is until one of the hired help secretly sells him to dog sledders from way up north. It isn’t long before Buck finds himself in the extremely harsh, brutal, primitive world of the frozen Yukon wilderness among dogs and men of a different order.

Buck must learn the ways of the wild, “the law of club and fang,” fast if he is going to survive.

Enough of the summary. The story is about the remarkable dog’s transformation from a domesticated, loyal family dog to a resourceful, primal ass-kicker of a dog (albeit one sold to slavery). It is incredibly beautiful.

And it’s an allegory, which invited me wonder a great deal about my own ability to survive without the sense-dulling safety net of civilized society. What if I was thrown into a world of wilderness? Could I survive? How would I fare when governed by the law of club and fang? I really do think I’d do well with the primitive life… but would not choose it.

Here’s a long excerpt from this amazing little book:

He swiftly lost the fastidiousness which had characterized his old life. A dainty eater, he found that his mates, finishing first, robbed him of his unfinished ration. There was no defending it. While he was fighting off two or three, it was disappearing down the throats of the others. To remedy this, he ate as fast as they; and, so greatly did hunger compel him, he was not above taking what did not belong to him. He watched and learned. When he saw Pike, one of the new dogs, a clever malingerer and thief, slyly steal a slice of bacon when Perrault's back was turned, he duplicated the performance the following day, getting away with the whole chunk. A great uproar was raised, but he was unsuspected; while Dub, an awkward blunderer who was always getting caught, was punished for Buck's misdeed.

This first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence.` It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feeling; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.

Not that Buck reasoned it out. He was fit, that was all, and unconsciously he accommodated himself to the new mode of life. All his days, no matter what the odds, he had never run from a fight. But the club of the man in the red sweater had beaten into him a more fundamental and primitive code. Civilized, he could have died for a moral consideration, say the defense of Judge Miller's riding whip; but the completeness of his decivilization was now evidenced by his ability to flee from the defense of a moral consideration and so save his hide. He did not steal for joy of it, but because of the clamor of his stomach. He did not rob openly, but stole secretly and cunningly, out of respect for club and fang. In short, the things he did were done because it was easier to do them than not to do them.

Adaptability, cunning, physical strength, instinct, courage, and the willingness to administer violence. And even among dogs it is imagination that ensures ones survival. Those are the means of survival of the primitive life. But what about happiness?

As Buck becomes more adept at survival (among dogs and brutal men), he begins to experience something primordial rise within him. Leading the chase for a rabbit, he becomes intimate with his true dog nature:

There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive. This ecstasy, the forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the depths of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.

I want that.

I did this story no justice whatsoever. I highly recommend this book. It’s a life-affirming story of a dog who finds freedom, and one you will not soon forget.

3. Engaging Grammar: Practical Advice for REAL Classrooms

by Amy Benjamin with Tom Oliva

Oh, you wouldn't believe what happens to the semicolon in the end!

Some old college writing on Lolita

I found it! Some reflective writing on Lolita from a Literature class in the Spring of 2000. It's not a cool as I remembered it to be.

Nothing in the realm of fiction has broken my heart as Lolita did. I read it years ago, but felt less like Humbert Humbert then, and longed less for my innocent childhood days. At once, I mourned for Dolores’ lost innocence and despised the depraved monster that stole it. But I also found myself reading on with, I’m embarrassed to admit, a certain curiosity. Of course, my defense will be that I was being manipulated by one of the true masters of the English language, although Nabokov deems his English “second-rate.” What, I wonder, does that say about me, the trusting reader?

Lolita is also a wonderful travel novel, albeit one propelled by desperation. The descriptions of the roads, various motel rooms and inns, and the plethora of vivid characters along the way, in totality make for a brilliant illustration of early to mid-century America. Yet, with all the incredibly vivid scenery, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are witnessing the perspective of an established liar and scoundrel. I have come to realize that “modernist” writers, if that can mean anything useful, are merely attempting to offer another kind of realistic experience. After all, when in real life do we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator with no interest in the outcome of his/her story? Is it not more realistic to read the story of a man who at least reveals that he is employing all his verbal faculties in order to persuade us, the jury? Perhaps some of the literary conventions of modernism are simply a new realm of realism. Or, perhaps, after experiencing Lolita, it is necessary for both terms to be abandoned.

2. Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (chap 1, para 3).

The synopsis on the back of my copy calls the novel, “Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humber’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze.” Isn’t that beautiful? Sounds like a quintessential Romance novel. It manages not to use the terms phedophilia, rape, abduction, and “creep in the park who is rubbing himself on your daughter”… and other contemporary terms we use when this type of “love affair” happens in reality.

Apparently, according to the back cover of the same book, a Time magazine reviewer called it, “Intensely lyrical and wildly funny.” I think I missed the wildly funny part. Where was that? Okay, I did chuckle at some of his prickly observations of American culture. But what else is funny about it?

But I love the book. I suppose I have to admit my grimacing interest in (concern for?) the despicable pursuit, and my outrage at the abuse. I certainly enjoyed the scraps of triumph as the growing, petulant Dolores drives the sleazebag to madness. How many times did I wish the bastard hit by a car, kicked in the groin, walked in on by a hotel employee. Alas, the pedophile has his way again and again, knowingly destroying that whom he professes to love.

I suppose I object to all the reviewers, academics and publishers of this novel who call it a love affair, or love of any type but the grossest kind of solipsistic self-love. And I think Nabokov would agree that too many readers have fallen for Humbert’s greasy charms. It should be no surprise, though, as we have all heard someone argue the “she seduced me!” defense (hopefully in reference to someone of a compatible age!). See, so many of us are already prone to accepting this rationalization from men. We are half way to believing Humbert before he speaks. Lionel Trilling says that we then, “find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” As readers, we are implicated in the crime.

But I love the book. I love it. As a reader I am captivated; as a writer I am humbled. It contains some of the richest, emphatic language I’ve read to date. Nabokov said it is, in part, about his “love affair with the English language” (Nabokov’s essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which is appended to my edition). I can’t say enough about his incredible lyrical style. It amazes me to think the Russian is his first language. English wasn’t even his second. There is a poetry to his writing that is moving, powerful. I will certainly read other Nabokov works in search of it. Partly with the hope that it doesn’t only reside in the voice of a pedophile!

Great book. I recommend it to anyone who 1) is old enough to understand that Dolores is not to blame for Humbert’s sickness (the narrator is quite slick with word play: puns, double entendre, and the outright lie) and 2) is not a victim of the Humberts of the world.

1. The Business of Fancydancing

by Sherman Alexie

This is a small book of his stories and poems. His poetry has a clarity and simplicity that makes me glad about poetry again each time I read it. I read a lot of poetry and much of it is uptight, insecure bullshit. I'm afraid that might include my own. So reading Alexie's I feel at once so obviously not an Indian and that words have power when they are strung together with love and care.

There's love and care for words themselves, the reader, and for the subjects he writes about.

Also, he was very funny on The Colbert Report in late November:



I ain't been read'n so much. It's in the past. In 2009 I'm going for 50 again. I love the goal.