I remember a friend telling me years ago that romantic love was an illusion. Of course, it also has a lot to do with our biology. Musician Joni Mitchell has called romance a “trick of nature, fueled by anxiety and insecurity… to get us to procreate.” In order for romantic love to be successful, both parties must be under the influence of this biological trick; or as my friend would put it, both people have to buy into the illusion.
All of that sounds pretty darn cynical. After all, romantic love is powerful stuff—so powerful that the creative among us often devote their artistic lives to consider it, analyze it, and dissect it in paintings, sculpture, song, plays and film. And in books.
I finished Haruki Murakami‘s 1Q84 six weeks ago. I’ve been reading like a house on fire, but I just haven’t set aside time to blog about my recent reads. The space between finishing Murakami’s latest and this blog post has given me a chance to consider just what this book says to me, and I think I can put it into words now.
1Q84 is about the magical, mystical and illusory journey that romantic love inspires, and about the biological, sexual, and emotional journey that nature demands. It’s also about the danger of falling in love, whether because we put ourselves in an overwhelmingly vulnerable position, or because the path to our loved one is fraught with antagonistic obstacles and trap doors. So powerful is this love, we can put our very life on the line to achieve both the ecstasy and the contentment promised by the union with our loved one.
It’s a Barnum and Baily world, just as phony as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe if you believed in me.”—It’s Only a Paper Moon by Billy Rose and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg
Our protagonists, Aomame and Tengo, could not seem more different when the novel begins. She is the product of parents who practice an unforgiving fundamentalist religion, while Tengo is the son of an obsessively insistent television-fee collector. In the present (1984 Japan), Aomame is a physical fitness trainer and self-defense instructor who sidelines as a serial killer, offing men who have cruelly presided over the destruction of the women in their lives. Tengo is a math instructor and aspiring writer.
Through their memories of growing up, we discover that both have little if any love from their family. We also discover that they knew of each other as children, and that they shared a magical moment of connection when they were ten years old. The memory of this connection eventually propels them to try to find each other, as they both realize that they have entered an alternate reality—a world that has two moons in the sky, and a world that is being influenced by an other-worldly force that is intent on taking control. (Aomame refers to this world as 1Q84, with “Q” for “question mark.” In my mind, I pronounced it q-teen-eighty-four.)
They each take different paths to the alternate reality—Aomame through an unconventional exit from a highway, and Tengo through the editing and polishing of a fantastical tale that introduces the “little people,” the outside force that is attempting to emerge into our world—but they ultimately find themselves at the same intersection, a point where they have come to believe in themselves and each other and in the power of love.
I could go into more of the story, for there is much to this story: the religious cult that provides an opening for the little people, Aomame’s path to vengeance, Tengo’s mysterious memory of his mother, the confounding teenage girl Fuka-Eri, the short story “Town of Cats,” the surprising pregnancy, and the ugly-beyond-ugly private investigator. I suppose literary critics could have a lot of fun discussing how the various elements relate to Aomame’s and Tengo’s great love story. But I’ll leave that to experts more adept at literary analysis.
Instead, I’ll leave you with this: Murakami’s story is not over when the two lovers find each other. Now they must find out if they can escape 1Q84 and return to their 1984. Just like lovers in real life, who have entered the emotional and spiritual place where romance is born and cemented, they must now incorporate their union into everyday life. Can Aomame retrace her steps along the highway to return herself and Tengo to the world they remember, or does another reality await them?
When I finished the novel, I wondered if Murakami really needed 925 pages to tell his story. Now I’m wondering if that’s a metaphor as well: It may take a long time to get there, but the journey may be fun, and the destination may be worth it.
Document of Expectations by Devon Abbott Mihesuah is a difficult review for me. Laying my cards on the table, I’m not Native American and this is definitely a book dealing with Native American issues. While the first part of the story is a straight forward mystery, with a strong Native American female character, academic politics, a dead professor and missing artifacts, the continued dwelling on Native American separatism, discrimination, and stereotypes makes the novel appear heavy handed with social messaging.
I liked Monique Blue Hawk as detective. Her handling of everyday work pressures was refreshing and tackled several gender and racial issues. The Department of Anthropology where anthropologist Tony Smoke Rise was murdered was certainly rife with overly ambitious, racist and professionally bankrupt individuals. Mihesuah handled issues of repatriation and cultural significance of ritual objects very well.
For me the novel went off the rails at Tony’s funeral. I’m all for justice dosed with a little revenge, but the finale just seemed way over the edge. It was almost comedic and did not serve to reinforce the issues Mihesuah had carefully brought to light earlier in the book. Sorry I can’t give this one two thumbs up, because I do think she is a very good writer.
If you’ve read Document of Expectations, do you agree with my review or do you have a different opinion?
My friend M. Scott Carter can now add “published author” to his impressive resume. Scott is a journalist who has lead several lives—at the Oklahoma State Senate, in the advertising industry, as director of marketing for the Metropolitan Library System, as reporter for the Norman Transcript, and now as a political reporter for the Journal Record.
Although I had some interaction with him while he was in the advertising world, I really came to know him while he worked for the library system. It’s obvious Scott has a passion for libraries and reading, and he’s particularly interested in promoting reading for pleasure to boys and young men. So I really wasn’t surprised to find that Scott’s first novel was aimed at young adults. (And, it’s a romance!)
Stealing Kevin’s Heart is the story of sixteen-year-old Alex Anderson, a young man who witnesses the death of his best friend Kevin, descends into depression, and ultimately finds the guidance—and the girl—to help him retrieve his life.
I was anxious to talk to Scott when the book came out. So… this edition of Talking About Books is really an author interview with my friend, M. Scott Carter.
Q: Scott, because you have an interest in marketing reading to boys, tell us a little bit about your relationship with books and reading while you were growing up.
A: I grew up in a very small town. However, the librarian at the public library was a genius. Every time I came in (and it was a lot) she would hand me a book and ask me “have you read this?” Usually I hadn’t and, almost always, I checked out what she handed me. I also racked up a million dollars in library fines (thankfully, my mom paid those). Seriously, though, it was at the library where I discovered the joy of reading and a deep long-lasting love for books.
Q: The saying goes, “Everyone wants to have written a book, but nobody wants to actually write one.” Have you always wanted to write a book? When did the desire translate into action?
A: Yes. I’ve wanted to write a book since I was in grade school. My mother bought me an old Underwood typewriter and I started my own newspaper (it covered our house and a couple of the neighbor’s) and even though that project was short-lived, I discovered just how much I enjoyed writing. I think that’s why I embraced journalism so strongly; it offered me the opportunity to write every day.
Q: This is ultimately a life-affirming book, but readers have to confront a lot of darkness first: death, potential suicide, a life-threatening medical condition, and an outrageously abusive character. Would you address this darkness and its role in the book?
A: Life is difficult and just because you’re writing about kids doesn’t mean it’s not difficult for them, too. There were several of these elements that I experienced when I was younger and they had a deep and lasting impact on me. I remember being chased home and beaten as a kid. I think it’s because of those events that I can identify with the underdog. Many times the underdog has to face the darkest obstacles. I wanted my characters to do that, but I wanted them to survive with their humanity intact. That’s a big part of Stealing Kevin’s Heart, showing how you can survive the darkest times and still remain human.
Q: I laughed at the “announcer” in Alex’s head who occasionally comments on his situation. (See Alex Anderson get arrested, tried, and convicted for trying to stop a crime. Only in America!) It’s like a promo for a TV show, or something you would hear before going into a commercial. Do you have an announcer in your head?
A: Yeah I do. That was straight out of my own life. There are so many times during the day that I hear a voice in my head broadcasting my latest screw-up that I’d swear I’ve been picked up by all three networks. Seriously, though, I added that to show that Alex was always thinking. He’s a modern kid, so he has that primary television experience and it’s manifested in his brain as his own personal television announcer. Still I would not recommend this for everyone.
Q: There are spiritual—even paranormal—dimensions in the final pages. Without giving anything away, would you talk about this aspect of Stealing Kevin’s Heart?
A: The spiritual component is just an example of one young man trying to discover his humanity. The paranormal aspect was written to show that sometimes, once in a while, there are things that happen in the world you just cannot explain. I like the idea that there is something bigger out there. And I like the idea that a real, honest-to-goodness friendship doesn’t end when one person dies. I was trying to show that, too.
Q: A little birdie (a Facebook post, actually) tells me you have another book in the works. Want to give us a preview?
A: Yes. My second novel for RoadRunner Press is The Immortal Van B. It’s the story of a young woman who “accidentally” clones a teenage Ludwig Van Beethoven, teaches him how to play the electric guitar and falls in love with him. It’s different but I think it’s really fun. I just finished writing it this week. I’m editing it right now and I really hope people like it.
Q: Being a sci-fi geek, that certainly sounds like it’s up my alley! Finally, because I’ve never known: what does the “M” stand for?
A: Marvelous. Most fun. Martian. Okay, okay, it actually stands for Matthew. When I was in college I worked at the campus radio station, and the news director there dubbed me “M. Scott” because there was another Scott on the air. The name stuck and I’ve used it as my pen name since then.
Well, Matthew Scott, thanks for taking the time to visit with us about your new book, and congratulations on its publication. I found my copy of Stealing Kevin’s Heart at Full Circle Books, but you can find it at other stores or online. Of course, you can also check with your local public library.
Read an excerpt from Stealing Kevin’s Heart.
I’m not a great fan of Halloween, generally. I live in an early 20th century eight-plex that makes it pretty darn hard to pass out candy and “oooo” and “ahhh” at the little tykes in costume. I’m not a party person, either. Plus, I’m not easily spooked. I prefer those holidays where family and friends gather. Halloween is just sort of… meh.
I do try to get in the mood though by renting a scary movie or reading a horror novel. So when I came across a discounted copy of Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter at a book store in September, I thought: “Oh! This will be a good book to read around Halloween!”
So I start it mid-October, and it takes me until the week of Thanksgiving to finish it! Honestly, the horror in this book was just getting through it.
I had never read a Straub novel, but this one appeared to have everything going for it, including praise from the likes of Stephen King, Michael Chabon and Booklist. And the author is a bestseller and an award-winner to boot!
In the novel, a 60-something writer in the present is moved to finally find out what really happened in a Madison, WI field in the 1960s. His wife and three of his friends were present at the event, where one person was slaughtered and another simply disappeared. The young high schoolers were seduced by a guru passing through town at the time—a guru who needed their help in lifting the veil from our perceived reality to discover what really lies underneath. A ceremony in the field was an attempt to discover the greater spiritual truth about our world.
That’s pretty much it. Except that at the beginning of the book, we already know the dead guy is dead, the vanished guy is gone, and the other people in the field are still alive. There. Is. Absolutely. No. Suspense. In. This. Book.
So why did I keep reading it? Well, to find out what happens, of course! I mean, there is a mystery. It’s not particularly interesting, but the thing about mysteries is you want to find out. And the thing about horror—unless just the thought of a monster face gives you the willies—is that it is successful or not based on the amount of suspense an author can make the reader feel.
Oh, there’s a sort-of-interesting side story about a serial killer, and a sort-of-interesting final revelation where a demon teaches us why we need evil in the world, but sort-of-interesting is the last thing you need a horror story to be. You want it to be a page turner. You want it to spark a chill or a shiver. You want it to make you feel alive. This book fails at all three.
Any Peter Straub fans out there? Tell me what you think about this author. He certainly has a way with words, but I sure hope he has some better stories than this one on the shelf.
And while we’re at it, anybody have suggestions of really good horror novels?
Literary Kitty is happy that we’re getting back on track with our Okie Reads posts, but he has a problem with us. Why, oh why, he wonders, didn’t we include this wonderful list in our last post? Well… gosh. Literary Kitty says “good job!” and then starts his criticism all over again.
He’s right, of course. (He always is.) Time Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to 2005 is a great list. (Why 1923, you ask? That’s the year Time magazine was born.) More than anything, the list is a great conversation starter. Is the list what you would come up with? What’s missing? Why did Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo come up with these titles? Well, you can find out on Time’s site, but you’ll have to navigate through the 100 one title at a time to read their commentary.
I don’t know whether to be happy or embarrassed by the fact that I’ve only read 12 titles on the list. Of those 12, I can give a thumbs up to:
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
- A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Okie Reads post on Lolita)
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Okie Reads post on Watchmen)
As far as the other four titles, I can probably tell you I was too old to fully appreciate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and that I was too young to fully appreciate Lord of the Flies, Portnoy’s Complaint and Rabbit Run. Or maybe I just wouldn’t have liked any of them, no matter what my age.
I suppose I should be a little ashamed that I haven’t read many of the classics on the list, such as Catch-22. (My friend Layla is re-reading that book right now.) But I’m really more perplexed why I’ve never cracked Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I mean, what kind of a sci-fi fan am I, anyway!?
OK, it’s your turn! What do you think about the list? What’s missing? What shouldn’t be there?
From the Divine Pen fell the first drop of ink.
And from a drop, a river.”
Craig Thompson’s new graphic novel Habibi is like a gift from literary heaven. The two protagonists in this sprawling epic spend much of their time in hell, which makes the finale all the more precious.
It is a story that tells us cruelty knows no time. It is about a striving for the spiritual, even while we live in a crushing, corporeal world. It is about the sacrifices we make for our beloved (our habibi), or simply to survive. It is about the power and beauty of words. And it is about the ultimate triumph of love.
In an unnamed Arab country, Dodola is sold into marriage at the age of nine. Her husband is a scribe who teaches the young girl how to read and write.
When her husband is murdered by thieves, 12-year-old Dodola is abducted and sold into slavery. It is through this ordeal that she meets a three-year-old boy who she takes under her wing and renames Zam. The two escape and set-up home in an abandoned ship in the middle of the desert.
As Habibi unfolds, we see Dodola and Zam’s relationship evolve as they grow-up together, are torn apart, suffer alone, and are reunited. At different points in the narrative they serve different roles for each other: parent, child, companion, object of desire, inspiration, caregiver, savior, partner, lover. Whatever the fates deal these characters, they each have a constant in their heart—for Dodola it is Zam, for Zam it is Dodola.
Habibi is also stories within stories. Dodola tells Zam stories from the Quran, and it was fascinating for this westerner to see how the stories differ from their biblical counterparts. I don’t know if other readers come to the same conclusion, but I can see the story of these two innocents fitting easily into a book of holy scripture. Their story would teach about the power of love and loyalty, and the nature of evil and its place on the human plane.
Thompson’s artwork is masterful, his writing almost mythological. Together, word and picture make for a thrilling and important work of literature.
Thompson has received great acclaim for his latest, but not everyone agrees. There are complaints about the stereotypical depictions of Arabs, and criticism of gratuitous nudity. The many drawings of a nude Dodola may titillate at times, but they are also a commentary on the objectification of women:
When the world is on its last breath… the masses will need something to distract them from the destruction—and my body will still be a commodity. This is the world of men.”
Any perusal of the many reviews of this book—whether the critics adore the work or have issues with it— will only illustrate the depth that lies within Habibi.
It is the best book I’ve read this year.
As professional consumers, Americans know that few things are as advertised. Take the Rapture in Tom Perrotta’s new novel, The Leftovers. The people who populate Earth in Perrotta’s latest aren’t even sure if the sudden departure of millions of fellow human beings *is* the rapture. It appears to be more of a random harvest, taking both believer and non-believer, the secular and the spiritual. Meanwhile, many God-fearing believers who banked on being taken up find themselves left behind.
Better to call it a “rapture-like” event, or simply the “sudden departure.”
The unknown quality of the tragedy only adds to the author’s exploration of how people deal with loss. How many of us have cried “Why?!” to heaven in Job-like despair? It’s horrible, but there are no answers, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.
And so… we go on living, searching for something that will help us put all these pieces back into some comprehensible shape. And that is what The Leftovers is all about.
It’s the story of the Garvey family of Mapleton, Massachusetts. None of the Garveys have departed, but they must now survive in this strange, new world:
• Father Kevin is serving as the town’s new mayor, trying to speed the healing process in his community.
• Mother Laurie abandons her family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, whose members take a vow of silence, wear white robes, and follow people around and stare at them so as to be a constant reminder that the world is ending and we better be ready. (Oh, and they are required to always be smoking when they’re out in public, to emphasize the fact that the end is near, so, like, “why worry about lung cancer?”)
• Teenage daughter Jill, a witness to the disappearance of a friend, is reeling from the departure.
• Son Tom is following the prophet Holy Wayne, who apparently has the ability to absorb the pain of others for a brief time.
It’s also the story of Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family to the departure. Her pain and guilt are palpable.
As I followed these characters on their journey, I was treated to an inside look into the Guilty Remnant, the fall of Holy Wayne, the cruelty of fanaticism, the odd and surprising connections that operate around us, and—ultimately—the harvest of hope that I immediately recognized as grounded and true, for it’s the harvest that has kept mankind going since our beginnings. It’s the one that says, “Here. Look what I’ve found.” There is a reason to go on. There is a reason to live.
Perrotta has a way with words. Beyond the story of these lost souls, readers are treated to a dose of writing that rings as true as that final harvest.
If you haven’t read Perrotta before, you may be familiar with two movies adapted from his novels: Election, a dark and hilarious work about an ambitious and insufferable high school girl and the male teacher who tries to get in her way; and Little Children, a trip through suburbia accompanied by pedophilia, infidelity, and redemption.
It was just the facts, please, when it came to reading for my father. He loved non-fiction, particularly books and magazines on science and nature. He always questioned me and my sister about what attracted us to fiction. He enjoyed scripted television shows and movies, but he never liked reading short stories and novels. He equated “reading fiction” to “a waste of time.”
Published in book form now, In Praise of Reading and Fiction is Llosa’s tribute to fiction’s power to inspire individuals and whole societies, and to bridge the imaginary distances between different cultures:
Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs and prejudices that separate us. When the great white whale buries Captain Ahab in the sea, the hearts of readers take fright in exactly the same way in Tokyo, Lima, or Timbuctu. …the shudder is the same in the reader who worships Buddha, Confucius, Christ, Allah, or is an agnostic, wears a jacket and tie, a jalaba, a kimono, or bombachas.”
Just as importantly, the worlds writers and readers imagine in the realm of fiction speak to our aspirations for a better reality:
When we look in fiction for what is missing in life, we are saying, with no need to say it or even to know it, that life as it is does not satisfy our thirst for the absolute—the foundation of the human condition—and should be better.”
From the earliest tales our ancestors spun in firelit caves to the grand epics of literature, Llosa knows we and our world are better because of the stories we tell each other.
There must be a thousand ways for civilization to come crashing down around our heads. You can always depend on good science fiction writers to come up with horrifying scenarios about a world reset. John Barnes has produced a doozy with his new Daybreak trilogy. The first two installments are out, and I’m going to have to wait until 2012 to read the third and final chapter. It’s the perfect time to get on board this exciting techno-thriller.
It’s the final Young Bill Young’s Summer Reads post for the year, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that the current temperature in OKC is a sweet 83 degrees! Labor Day really was the end of summer this year!
Barnes’s Daybreak series is part end-of-the-world horror story, part post-apocalyptic adventure, and part political speculation. The collapse of civilization in Directive 51 is caused by a movement known as “Daybreak”—an Internet-connected group of diverse people (ranging from eco-crazies to stewardship Christians to disgruntled techno-geeks) who have only one thing in common: they all want to bring the Big System down. The release of nanoswarm and biotes destroy rubber, plastics and oil products, and the destruction spreads rapidly around the planet, causing a dramatic and quick end to modern civilization. Following the initial collapse of modernity, Daybreak rears its head with additional poxes that are aimed at making sure Earth stays primitive, including radiation bombs that are set off in strategic locations.
While the reader is given some of the gore that follows America’s collapse, Barnes is more interested in what happens to America following such a scenario. Enter National Security Presidential Directive NSPD 51 (it actually exists), the plan that “claims power to execute procedures for continuity of the federal government in the event of a catastrophic emergency.” Despite the directive, it doesn’t take long for the two political parties to flex their muscle, with opposing governments set up in Athens, GA and Olympia, WA. Meanwhile, an informational and research arm of the “federal government” is operating out of Pueblo, CO, charged with disseminating information via steam train to pockets of people around the country. (Are you old enough to remember those Federal Citizen Information Center ads asking you to write to Pueblo for free federal government brochures? Turns out they still have all of that information!)
As the first novel nears its close, the two governments are actually contemplating war with each other, as if Daybreak wasn’t bad enough. It will take the wisdom of protagonist Heather O’Grainne (administrator of the Pueblo operation), the skills of a surviving reporter, and the Socratic Method to try to spare what’s left of America.
The sequel Daybreak Zero opens only two months after the final events of Directive 51, and one year since the first catastrophic events known as Daybreak. In this second installment, we learn that tribes have formed across the country to battle any re-emergence of civilization. We learn that a new Post-Raptural church has emerged that is preparing for the tribulation. More importantly, we learn that Daybreak must be the deadliest meme ever. Those who have incorporated the ideas of Daybreak actually have seizures when trying to go against the meme. And Daybreak is infiltrating the governments of Olympia and Athens, and the research institute in Pueblo.
Some reviewers criticize the “one-dimensional” aspect of Barnes’s characters, but I didn’t find them to be so. No, you will not read pages and pages of philosophical, social and psychological ruminating by the individual characters. But you do get enough insight into the characters to give a damn about what happens to them. And, anyway, this is a story about people who are trying to stay alive while they attempt to bring back some kind of stability to their crumbling world. The meaning of life for these characters, is the meaning of survival.
I read a couple of graphic works last month. One gets a thumbs up. One gets a sideways thumb at the most.
The Gist: If you’re following Fables–the best darn comic book out there right now–get ready for an epic battle between Mr. Dark and Frau Totenkinder. Meanwhile, Rose Red must put aside her grieving over the death of Boy Blue and pull herself together in order to organize the Fables for the coming conflict with the dark master. We learn about Snow White and Rose Red’s past, more is implied about Ghost (Snow White and Bigby’s invisible child), and Beauty finally births Beast’s baby! If you haven’t been following Fables, you don’t know what you’re missing!
Status: Devoured! Volume 15 includes the wonderful 100th issue of the comic book with lots of fun extras.
Summer Escapism: Yeah, baby!
Strength of Writing: A
Stimulation of the Little Grey Cells: B (I get totally immersed in this world when reading a Fables volume.)
Social Relevance: B (Yes, we’re talking about good versus evil, but Willingham’s Fable characters are too complicated and rich to be relegated to simple black and white.)
General Reaction: The best Fables story arc of the last couple of years. Can this comic get any better?!
The Gist: Hapless geek Jimmy is a mama’s boy and librarian in Oakland who thinks he knows more than he actually does about computers and the Internet. When he loses his best friend Sara to an internship in New York, he realizes that he has romantic feelings for her. So… it’s off to New York!
Status: Read cover to cover
Summer Escapism: Meh…
Strength of Writing: C (Yes, it was satisfactory.)
Social Relevance: B (Jimmy has a job but he’s still a step or two away from being a self-actualized adult. He represents the Emerging Adult, an increasing trend in our country.)
Generation Reaction: Reading this made me feel as empty as Jimmy must feel. Oh yeah, I chuckled in a few of places, but it was generally a solemn read for me. Following Jimmy’s trip to New York and his last interaction with Sara, the reader is left with no idea if the protagonist will begin to gain confidence and take charge of his life. In reading a book, at the very least, I want to know that something has changed for a character, that some revelation about life has been earned. You won’t get that reading Empire State. (Jimmy is a continuing character for Shiga, so maybe we’ll be rewarded in future books.) I’m a great believer that every read does not have to leave you feeling good, and I suppose this story has something to tell us about the state of twenty-somethings in the world today. Maybe I’m just becoming an old fuddy-duddy!
By the way, Shiga continues to have great promise, despite my lukewarm review of Empire State. After all, he did create this! It features Jimmy, too.
Visit ShigaBooks to find out more about this talented artist and writer.