2016 Wrap-UP: Booknado 2016!

2016 marks the 4th year that my sister Dallas and I have made our annual list of books to read based on certain themes. At the end of the year we rank the books by favorites. This year the list included pirates, sentient wolves, vengeful Japanese ghosts, the world’s dullest marriage, avalanches and volcanoes, mind vampires, tiny people, wilderness, revolutionary beauty products, lots of horses, and one obnoxiously haunted house.

Our rankings are below, beginning with the books we enjoyed the most to the bottom of the bin, Dallas’ rankings in parentheses.

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    (Dallas – 2) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (A book you read when younger that you don’t remember) A classic that’s a classic for a good reason. I enjoyed returning to a book I read when I was too young and dumb to understand it the first time.
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    (Dallas – 3) The White Cascade by Gary Krist – (a disaster book) I always love me a good disaster, especially in the mountains.
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    (Dallas – 4) On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Perry Bundles – (book based in the state you were born: Missouri)The fascinating story of a black female entrepreneur in an era when such a thing was thought impossible. That is also possibly the most bad ass picture I’ve ever seen.
  4. 850206
    (Dallas – 6) Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg – (book based in the state you were born: Wyoming). A heartfelt ode to the wilderness of Wyoming. Thoughtful and evocative.
  5. 295
    (Dallas – 1) Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – (a book read when younger that you don’t remember). This was a first read for me, a fun tale of adventure and treasure.
  6. 188891
    (Dallas – 5) No Apparent Danger by Victoria Bruce – (A disaster book) Two volcanoes, one that killed over 20,000 people. A somewhat truncated version of events and the lessons we humans seemed determined never to learn.
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    Micro 
    by Michael Crichton (finished by Richard Preston) – (book the other person hasn’t read) Honey, I shrunk the grad students! That’s all. *Dallas read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and ranked it at #8. She doesn’t want to hear about your love life, man.
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    (Dallas – 7) Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons – (book from the 50 Scariest Reads list) Disappointing, considering the caliber of the writer and the prestige of the book. Mind vampires = super evil, also racist. Normal people = heroes.
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    (Dallas – 9) Wolfen by Whitley Strieber – (book from the 50 Scariest Reads list). Sentient wolves and a couple of absolute dipshit detectives who miraculously don’t die about a million times.
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    (Dallas – 10) Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates – (book from a list we don’t remember) Yeah, idiots lost in the woods and at some point it stops being fun.
  11. 24612118
    (Dallas – 11) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – (books from a list we don’t remember) Overrated literary pretentiousness.
  12. 38379
    (Dallas – 12) Ring by Koji Suzuki – (book on both of our Goodreads list) Thank god the movie borrows only the few good elements from the novel and leaves the rest of that tripe on the cutting room floor.

*Funny how we ranked the final four books exactly the same. It was a tough choice choosing the baddest of the bad, but the utter inanity of Ring evidently trumped the douche-couple by that much.

Coming Soon…NEW LIST FOR 2017! What will we call it? What awful books will we force each other to read, and which ones will we suffer through together?

2016 Reading Wrap-Up: The Weirdest, Scariest, and Grossest Books I’ve Read This Year!

From the “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” vibe of Micro to the classic demoniac puking of My Best Friend’s Exorcism, a tribute to all of the nasty, creepy, nauseating, perverted, horrifying literature I’ve ingested since January 1, 2016:

Most Likely to make you skip dinner: 

The Troop by Nick Cutter

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A mash-up of Cronenbergian body horror and Freudian nightmares, this book will worm its way into your skin with its grotesque imagery. A Lord of the Flies mentality only increases the horror.

The “Consumerism KILLS!” Award:

The Store by Bentley Little/Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

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You’ll find everything you never knew you needed, whether it’s the array of dangerous and illegal merchandise in The Store or that haunted torture chair perfect for your reading nook. The price is only your soul!

More Baffling than your GPS

The Ritual by Adam Nevill/Ring by Koji Suzuki

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Our wonderful human brains are wired to constantly evaluate our environment and make predictions, like whether that jerk is actually going to stop at the stop sign. It’s why we love mystery stories and why a good twist always startles and excites us.

Some stories, though, are better left untwisted. The Ritual begins as a morons lost in the woods story and takes a hard left into territory better left unexplored, and to this day I’m still thinking about whether I liked it or not.

The Ring is a rare case of the movie improving upon the book. Because nothing kills atmosphere like misogyny and transphobia. God, this book was so bad!

Overrated, like Buffalo Wild Wings

Annhilation by Jeff VanDerMeer/Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons

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Seriously, B-Dubs (as the kids call it) isn’t that great.

I’ll never understand the phenomenon of Annihilation. I saw it pop up on “best of” lists everywhere after I read it. It’s not even mediocre. It’s bad. The characters are sketchy, and despite the propulsive nature of “Area X,” the book is boring. It reads like an outline for a longer book. I read the second book, Authority, and somehow made it through, but finally came to terms with bailing on a book in the middle of Acceptance. My boat was not floated.

Carrion Comfort was disappointing because it was both hugely hyped and written by the brilliant Dan Simmons. The writing and characterization was solid, but the plot seemed to follow a by-the-numbers Evil vs. Good scenario that didn’t allow for ambiguity.

Proof that “L’enfer, c’est l’autres”

Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi/The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

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Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn! – Robert Burns

A true story and a novel based on a true story, both books will have you up at night with despair at the cruelty we can inflict on others. Pain reverberates out like a shockwave, down through centuries and bloodlines. Brutality is delivered with a laugh. People die in service of (always) false gods and despair. As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “no animal could ever be so cruel as a man, so artfully, so artistically cruel.”

Grooviest Creature

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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One of the most inventive horror stories to come along in a while, our very sight betrays us. If we don’t look, we stay alive. But the temptation to look…the scariest things you see are with your eyes closed.

Squarest Creature

Wolfen by Whitley Strieber

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Semi-sentient wolf creatures with terrifying claws and feelings. Proto-Twilight Werewolves. This is the result of half-ass anthropomorphization. What’s scary about creatures is that they kill without discrimination, without intent, without remorse. But give them a love story and suddenly they’re just big fluffy cuddlebears (with teeth for shredding people like pulled pork.)

By the Power of Shirley Jackson!

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

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Anyone who pays tribute to my personal Jesus Shirley Jackson is deserving of accolades. Tremblay, who also happens to sit on the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards gives numerous shout-outs to the Great One in Ghosts, from the protagonist’s name to certain plot elements. Unreliable narrator and questionable existence of supernatural elements? Sounds familiar…

The “You Deserve to Die You Idiot” Award

Suicide Forest by Jeremy Bates

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How can a story with such a bitchin’ setting be so lame? Honestly. How did you expect to hike Mt. Fuji with sneakers and a package of Japanese noodles? Is there a staircase to the top? Why do you suck so much, young people? I wish this book were a little better, because I enjoyed watching you die.

Fire and Ice: Best Dystopian Nightmare

Swan Song by Robert McCammon

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Sister Creep, makin’ it happen!

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I have a terrible deformity caused by radiation poisoning!

No, I don’t feel fine.

 

 

 

Booknado 2016: December – Cascades of Horror

Theme: A Disaster!

Once, while taking a bus trip from Galesburg, Illinois to Columbus, Ohio, I overhead the people in the seats ahead of me rhapsodizing about the luxuries of train travel (especially as compared to a crammed greyhound bus where the passenger beside me took up her seat and half of mine.)

“You can drink,” one person said. “And smoke!” I don’t think this was necessarily true, but the implications were clear. Trains, of the clean, modern, Amtrak variety, were comfortable and fun.

Say it ain’t so.

Trains were a miracle of modern travel in the mid 1800’s up until the invention of the automobile in the early 1900’s. They revolutionized the way goods and people were transported and opened up the Western frontier to civilization. For example, the city of Seattle, populated by less than 10000 people in 1880 would see over 237,000 residents in the space of just 30 years.

Two of the best train disaster books I have read (and I’ve read three) took place 43 years apart, bracketing that golden age of train travel. In The Angola Horror, author Charity Vogel points out that train travel in 1867 was decidedly unglamorous, citing the filthy conditions, the floors varnished in tobacco spit, and the poor heating systems that would ultimately compound the tragedy that took place on a bridge near a little hamlet called Angola in New York.

When the bridge collapsed, causing two passenger cars to plummet into the ravine below, the stoves heating the cars tumbled along with the occupants, starting fires that quickly raged into blazing infernos. People lucky enough to survive the fall were promptly burned to death. 49 people would lose their lives, and identification of the victims, charred beyond recognition, proved nearly impossible.

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Fast forward four decades, and despite their dangers, trains had cracked opened the impenetrable wilderness that stretched to the Pacific Ocean. Railroads had even blazed a path through the range known as the “Last Mountains,” the Cascades. But nature proved to be an unforgiving and vehement adversary. In February of 1910, the worst snowstorm in decades assailed the Cascades, numerous snowslides stranding a passenger train and mail car in a tiny stop named Wellington, nestled high in Stevens Pass. For a week, railroaders labored to clear the tracks while the stranded trains waited, parked beneath an intimidating slope 1000 feet high and stubbled with the remains of burned out timber.

As the temperature fluctuated and the wind howled, the inevitable (in hindsight) happened. A tsunami of snow roared down the mountain, sweeping away the trains with sleeping passengers and crew inside, in what became the deadliest avalanche in history. 96 people died.

Both books investigate a time when modernity was accelerating our lives into the future, dispelling old fears and creating new ones. Some lives ended in fire, some in ice, and as we banish one method of death, we invent a new one. Automobiles and airplanes relegated trains to the sideline as a mode of transportation, bringing fresh horrors of their own. Still, these little slices of history remind us of the prices we pay for our convenience.

*forecast calls for snow

  • Although Wellington is no more, there’s a trail along the old rails for anyone wanting to experience a piece of history. It’s only 2 1/2 hours from me, so I plan on checking it out next summer.
  • Booknado 2016 is in the history books! 2017 is currently being written. What wonders does it hold in store? I wonder…

 

 

Booknado 2016: November – Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson + 50 Scariest Books: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

…the other contained a verse or two of Revelation—these words among the rest, which struck sharply home upon my mind: “Without are dogs and murderers.”

– Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

…and yet not alien none of it more than were their own hearts alien in them, whatever wilderness contained there and whatever beasts.

– Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy

Theme: A book you read when younger but don’t remember.

This is Dallas’ pick for November (to clarify, she read Treasure Island as a child, NOT Blood Meridian, thank the Lord. I’m combining the two reviews because I’ve noticed some interesting parallels. )

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Published approximately a century apart, Treasure Island and Blood Meridian are both adventure stories of a sort. Treasure Island is the straight-forward tale of a boy who meets a pirate, discovers a treasure map, and embarks on a famous journey to Skeleton Island, where he must contend with the scurrilous, crafty old Long John Silver and his obnoxious parrot. Blood Meridian is a western yarn, turned on its head to upend the heroic vision of the Wild West as a glorious world where heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and good and evil stay in their separate quarters. The protagonist of Blood Meridian is a 14 year old boy called “The Kid,” and the treasure that he seeks is of a more gory variety than that of Treasure Island. To be specific, he’s a member of a group contracted by the Mexican government to procure as many Indian scalps as possible.

Each story has a big bad: In Treasure Island, it’s the one-legged Long John Silver (now immortalized in a stomach-churning fast food chain), effortlessly charming and hilariously self-interested, he’ll feed you to the fishes if it saves his neck from the gallows, or speeds him closer to the treasure. His facility with a crutch borders on balletic, and yet in the end, his greed proves him easily confoundable. But shiver my timbers, the guy manages the last laugh in the end!

The Big Bad in Blood Meridian is a tall, mysteriously hairless man unsubtly named “The Judge.” The only educated man in the Kid’s group of vicious varmints, he spends half his time expostulating on the nature of mystery and morality and the other half doing fun things like drowning puppies and killing children. An unpleasant, manipulative psychopath, he makes the plainspoken cruelty of the others a relief by comparison.

The characters in both novels are archetypes; in Treasure Island, we are meant to side with the plucky hero, Jim Hawkins, cheering him (and by extension, ourselves) as his cleverness bests the pirates time after time. This tendency to identify with a protagonist works against the reader in Blood Meridian, however, because The Kid is no saint, an aimless wanderer who spills his own fair measure of blood for profit on his journey across the Mexican desert. In Blood Meridian, there is no one to root for because there seems to be nothing but evil permeating the bleak landscape. Men kill and rape and drink and fight and die. Plenty of them die for no reason.

Bloodshed is prominent. It’s an easier pill to swallow in Treasure Island, because the bad guys are trying to kill them and steal the treasure. But aren’t the so-called “good” guys trying to steal the treasure too? What really separates the pirates from the heroes? A pirate is an easy archetype to despise (unless they are of the Caribbean variety or named “Captain Morgan.”) It follows the similar western archetypes of Cowboys and Indians, a trope turned inside-out in Blood Meridian where no matter what side of the river you’re standing on, the actors are all capable of the vilest atrocities.

At this point, I have to take a detour to address language. The language of Treasure Island is straight-forward and fairly comprehensible despite the garbled language of seafaring men. Blood Meridian takes a more literary approach that melds the “manly” prose of Hemingway with a lyrical descriptive quality. Having never read a McCarthy novel before, it took me fully a third of the book to find a rhythm and parse a narrative out of the almost surrealistic nature of the prose (time and time again Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain came to mind). I won’t deny that McCarthy’s imagery is striking and sometimes beautiful, such as when he describes “the dusk where lizards lay with their leather chins flat to the cooling rocks and fended off the world with thin smiles and eyes like cracked stone plates.”

Just try writing something that evocative with such simple words.

But I am slow to praise even as the blurb on the back reads: “brilliantly subverting the conventions of the Western novel and the mythology of the Wild West” because McCarthy’s skill at portraying violence is too good, lurid, voyeuristic, loving, even. If the novel is meant to demean the glorification of violence, it fails, because what it does instead is linger with fond eye on that perversity and sickness. In film, that’s called “torture porn” and many times (I Spit on your Grave and Last House on the Left comes to mind) it puts on a pedestal the violence it seeks to denounce.

I’m all for the gore. Bring it on. But don’t pretend that depicting a head recently liberated of its scalp in tender, loving detail is subversion. Show of hands: who here thinks Anton Chigurh is a total badass? Who really watches No Country for Old Men and remembers it as an epic meditation on the nature and ultimate condemnation of violence? Film critics, maybe. Most people remember Javier Bardem in a terrible wig carrying around a cattle gun and flipping coins. Everyone wanted to be that guy. Tommy Lee Jones who?

To be fair, the blurb may be doing a disservice to the novelist’s intentions, perhaps willfully misreading the message of the novel to assuage a kind of guilt that accompanies such a visceral, amoral story. Take this quote from a 1992 interview with McCarthy:

“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”

Irregardless, this book makes a strong case against nostalgia. The “good old days” weren’t really that great, and even adventures are overrated. We see the baggage The Kid carries around from his early days of bloodshed. Would it have been any better for young Jim Hawkins?

*Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum

  • Blood Meridian is fresh off Flavorwire’s 50 Scariest Books list that I’m working through. 29 down!
  • Drinking game! Every time someone spits in Blood Meridian. You’ll be drunk by chapter 2! I’m not sure if that makes the experience of reading the book better or worse. I read a big chunk of it on a plane that smelled like vomit, so there’s that.
  • According to IMDB, there are thousands of Treasure Islands, the definitive version, of course, being 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island.
  • Blood Meridian has yet to be transformed into film. Is there a rule that if I’ve read a book, I have to see the movie? This has turned out badly for me so many times.

 

Booknado 2016: October – Book vs. Movie Smackdown! – The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber/Wolfen (1981)

Werewolves always get short shrift. In the pantheon of monsters, they’re kind of an afterthought, despite theoretically sharing a genetic heritage with the best animals of all time.

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I am Charlotte, descendant of the mighty wol-is that a sandwich?

In literature and film, werewolves are often portrayed as playing second fiddle to the sexier, cooler monster, the vampire, a relationship either servile or adversarial and always one-sided (see: True Blood, Twilight, Underworld, Dracula). It makes sense: vampires are everything we want to be: powerful, immortal, cool. Werewolves are what we fear we are: feral, bestial, animal.

THE BOOK

The Wolfen does nothing to improve upon the monster’s legacy. Though not technically werewolves (hence Wolfen, a more sentient, deadlier version of a normal wolf), they possess a rudimentary intelligence and tribal mentality that enables them to wage a terrifying campaign against a pair of detectives who have inadvertently stumbled onto their secret.

That they don’t immediately slaughter the two cop ten pages into the book requires quite a leap of faith, considering these two bumbling idiots might as well stand in Central Park smearing Alpo on their faces for all the clever evasive moves they accomplish. That they live on, even posing a challenge for the Wolfen is pretty damn embarrassing, like any football team losing to the Cleveland Browns.

Surely, I thought, the movie can’t be worse than the book.

THE MOVIE

It can’t be too terrible, I thought. I get that it came out in 1981, so I was prepared to accept a certain level of production quality. And it stars such names as Albert Finney, Tom Noonan, and Edward James Olmos. The fact that it deviates considerably from the source material could only be a bonus.

Holy hell,this movie was amazing.

I don’t even know where to start with this lost gem, so I will presents a few carefully curated insights to allow potential viewers to decide for themselves whether this film is worth two hours of their life:

  • Approximately 50% of the movie is filmed in “Wolf-o-vision,” which is basically a lo-fi Instagram filter
  • Starring: Albert Finney’s hair. Albert Finney’s sweatpants. Albert Finney’s eyebrows. Not actually starring: Albert Finney.
  • Lady Detective. Did you get that? Lady. Detective.
  • In a fairly offensive Native American stereotype, Edward James Olmos takes peyote and runs around naked, thinking he is a wolf.
  • Also starring: An old timey windmill.
  • Spoiler alert: the Wolfen look like normal wolves.

THE VERDICT

Skip both. Bad bad bad bad bad.

*Neighboring Packs

  • Whitley Strieber is still actively writing, focusing on alien encounters and journaling about out-of-body experiences. Apparently, he experienced an abduction/encounter himself back in the 80’s and wrote a popular book, Communion about it. So there’s that.
  • Here are some books about werewolves you should maybe read, and then tell me if they’re any good: The Book of Were-Wolves by Sabine Baring Gould, The Wolf’s Hour By Robert McCammon, The Howling by Gary Brandner, The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo.
  • Here are some good films about werewolves: The Wolfman (1941), Werewolf of London (1935), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Silver Bullet (1985), Cursed (2005).
  • Here is a song about werewolves: Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon.

October To-Read: Horror in All the Right Places!

I’m stoked to devote all of October to my absolute favorite genre of anything: Horror.

After slogging through a summer consisting mainly of non-fiction science reads (don’t get me wrong, I loved Get in them Genes! A Summer of Origin) it’s time to indulge.

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The Store by Bentley Little – A story of consumerism taken to its dangerous extreme. This book is on the Flavorwire 50 Scariest Books of all time list that I’m working through.

The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber – Strieber is one of the classics of the genre, however I’ve never read any of his books. This is both a Booknado pick and on the 50 Scariest Books list. I also plan on watching the 1981 movie starring Albert Finney, Edward James Olmos and Tom Noonan. Tom Noonan!

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – Also on the 50 Scariest Books list, McCarthy is an author I know only through film. The only thing I know about this book is that I should prepare for McCarthy’s spare prose and also to be depressed.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz – 9 year old me would have loved this book! Also on the 50 scariest book list.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin – Shirley Jackson is hands down my favorite author. Her works are full of horror, perpetrated by ordinary people, and the exploration of haunted psyches. A brand new biography, I can’t wait to read!

Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon – Apparently this book bears comparison to Stephen King’s The Stand. It certainly looks long enough. Hopefully my vacation will find me with much spare time to read.

Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie – I found this book in my car; apparently I liberated it from a garage sale for 25 cents and then spilled something on it. It’s one of the few Christie books I’ve never read, and what an appropriate time to read it!

In addition, I’ll be listening to at least 3 audiobooks: The Troop by Nick Cutter (yay, dum-dums in the woods!), Certain Dark Things by M.J. Pack (a book of creepy short stories) and a third, yet to be determined book. Suggestions?

 

Booknado 2016: September – Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg

Theme: The book from this list about the state where you were born.

The Book: Where Rivers Change Direction by Mark Spragg

“Maybe I am the only one afraid. I wonder whether getting older will give me more, or less, to fear.” Where Rivers Change Direction, Mark Spragg

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I was born in Wyoming. I don’t remember any of it because we moved when I was only a few years old. A few years back I traveled through the southwest corner, staying the night in Cheyenne. The largest city in Wyoming with a population of almost 60,000, it boasts an air force base, a rodeo, and cowboy boots the size of outhouses.

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That boot is actually pretty badass. 

Outside of the city, I remember wide open plains, hills, a horizon that stretched on forever. Every once in a while, I’d see a forlorn statue of a single bison perched on a hill.

There was also this:

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Population: 62

The Wyoming that Spragg recalls resides in the northwestern portion of the state, in the wilderness outside of Yellowstone. Where Rivers Change Direction is a memoir of boyhood both romantic and brutal. Spragg sings songs to the beauty of the landscape and wildlife and the horses that he grew up around on the ranch his family owned, but he doesn’t shy away from the harshness of that reality: winters in Wyoming are cold, the wind blows all the time, and one wrong turn can bring disfigurement and death to people and horses alike.

It’s not an environment for the faint-of-heart. Amateur homesteaders need not apply.

Spragg’s prose is beautiful, vividly evocative of the natural world and the people that populated his life. Thoughtful and imaginative, he give voice to thoughts that only seem to come when we’re young. Of the horses who dominated his waking hours, he writes:

I imagine I hear the horses laugh. I think it every time. I think that running is the way a horse may laugh out loud. When I am older I will believe that following in their wake has filled me with the inconsolable joy of animals.

The joy is laced with sadness as time marches on. As a boy, Spragg ruminated on the type of man he would become. As he grew older, he began to fear that man. Accustomed to taking city folks out into the wilderness to hunt bear and elk, he no longer hunts as an adult. Even as a boy, he found it difficult to watch a bear killed. He writes:

I expected to learn the language of bear, but I only learned to love them. Now, when the sun is up I am still their friend. I still imagine that I can stand with a foot in their world. But at night I know I am slowly growing into a man. I am afraid that a bear will find me out, judge me. I am afraid that a bear will kill me for the traitor I am.

There is something to fear about growing older, and it isn’t death. Death is natural and inevitable. The fear is loss, loss of self, loss of joy, and a life not fully lived.

Booknado 2016: August – Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Theme: A book on a list…eh, we just needed one more book and this one was popular

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“Mom told me I could eat this”

I tried to feed this to my dog, but her tastes run to classic Russian Literature.

I don’t tend to read about books in depth before reading them for myself. I like surprise. So I didn’t read about this book prior to choosing it for Booknado, otherwise I might have picked a different book. Any other book. It’s my fault really, for if I’d seen that this was the story of a marriage, I would have yakked there and then and skipped out on this clunker.

Fates and Furies hits all the Literary Fiction tropes. It has idiosyncratic, artsy characters, flowery prose, Shakespeare, references to Greek mythology and ancient plays and nauseating sex descriptions. Oh joy of joys.

First, the marriage. Lotto is the typical man-child, unable to pay a bill or tie a shoe, but he’s so charming. There are hundreds of words in this novel dedicated to explaining how charming Lotto is. His wife is the typical stoic, competent, resourceful cipher, at least for the first half of the book. This follows along the idea that every genius is a disaster, and every capable, job-holding, bill-paying adult is haunted by the “splinter of evil” within. As though artistic success relies solely on fitful vomit-fests of creativity and no actual work. In a way, it’s demeaning to actual artists who work their butts off while soothing the disappointment of untalented creative wannabes.

And don’t even get me started on the treatment of class issues in this book.

It doesn’t bother me that the characters are unlikable. It bothers me that they’re uninteresting. They hew so closely to the cliches they inhabit that they never come off as real people; merely devices to serve the author’s facility with language.

The prose is strong in the first half of the book; it even elicits a sliver of emotion and existential despair, but cannot prop up the utter apathy I feel towards the plot and characters, each a caricature; my guess is that the novel is supposed to mirror the epic plays of Greek literature (Duh, it’s called Fates and Furies). I know I’m not supposed to say this, but that stuff bores me (“ever to confess you’re bored means you have no inner resources“).

Fates and Furies brings to mind some of the better marriage-centric Lit Fic novels that I’ve read, such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Revolutionary Roadbut it sure doesn’t join them

Booknado 2016: July

Theme: A book on both of our Goodreads Lists

 

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Ring by Koji Suzuki

Let’s begin with my complicated relationship with J-Horror. Although a horror buff for most of my life, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of J-Horror until I watched the American remake of Ringu in theaters in 2002. Nowadays the cliches of J-Horror (creaky ghosts, long black hair, grudges of all sorts) are well tread, but back in its day The Ring scared the crap out of me. So much so that I took the TV out of my room that night and put it in the hallway. And I won’t lie, I was grown.

One of the blurbs inside the book pronounces Suzuki the “Japanese Stephen King.” I’m wondering if something got lost in translation. To put it bluntly, the prose is bland, the characters are nasty, and misogyny is rampant. There’s a weird and unnecessary “twist” that seems to borrow from The Crying Game amidst muddled themes of hermaphroditism, viral contagion, and paranormal abilities. The clock is always ticking, yet the characters only occasionally seem to feel a sense of urgency.

I don’t remember much about Ringu, but The Ring as a film left an indelible imprint on my psyche. For a horror movie, it did a fine job of evoking atmosphere and dread. It probably ruined me for the book. All along I anticipated the endgame, so I wasn’t even able to enjoy the mystery. I’m prepared to express the rarest of sentiments:

The movie was better than the book. 

Oh yes, I did.

Booknado 2016: June

Theme: A book from the the list Non-fiction Tour of America: 50 Books for 50 States. Dallas’ turn this month, and since she was born in Missouri, our book for June:

“I had a dream and that dream begot other dreams until now I am surrounded by all my dreams come true.” Madam C.J. Walker

It is difficult to conceive the tremendous obstacles Madam C.J. Walker faced in her rise to become America’s premier businesswoman in the early 20th century. Born on a plantation to former slaves, deprived of formal education, and simply being a black woman in an era where thousands of lynchings went unpunished and the civil rights movement that would finally turn the tide of “separate but equal” and institutionalized racism was still half a century away. Madam Walker would die a year before women were even granted the right to vote.

Fierce, determined, a brilliant marketer and business mogul, Madam Walker was an all-around badass; she created an empire that boosted thousands of women out of domestic work and into independence with her hair-growing product that generated enormous revenue and improved the health and self-esteem of thousands of consumers. She defiantly defended her products against those who accused her of attempting to emulate white culture with hair-straightening techniques:

“’Right here let me correct the erroneous impression that I claim to straighten hair…I deplore such impression because I have always held myself out as a hair culturist.”

And when Madam C.J. Walker was denied a seat at the table, as demonstrated in initially frosty interactions with Booker T. Washington, she brought her own chair and invited herself anyway.

On Her Own Ground is a fantastic biography written by A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great granddaughter. A feat of journalistic rigor about a subject whose life is shrouded by obscure and incomplete source materials, Bundles manages to paint a beautiful portrait, made all the more evocative by her personal connection to the subject. The only frustrating part of the book is that we are presented with the captivating public life of Madam Walker, but her personal life, her thoughts, feelings, internal struggles, remains painfully obfuscated due to lack of information. Her biography often generates more questions than answers, and all we have from her comes in the form of letters and interviews.

We do, however, know about her public works, and they were manifold. In addition to being hugely successful, she was a generous philanthropist and fierce supporter of civil rights in a time when she was still referred to in newspapers as a “negress.”

Madam Walker traveled from one coast to another, leaving her mark wherever she went, from St. Louis to Indianapolis to Harlem. That she succeeded despite the odds brings with it a sobering reflection. For every Madam C.J. Walker, there were thousands upon thousands whose spirit and ingenuity could not break through the barrier of racism. How many bright lights were extinguished because of fear and ignorance? On Her Own Ground serves both as an inspiration and paean to an incredible woman’s spirit and strength and a stark reminder of how we must continue the struggle against returning to such dark times.

Which is why this scares the hell out of me.