Sunday, December 28, 2014

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

***Spoilers galore***

I don't review every book I read. I don't have time really, nor do I always have something to say, but this novel shook me, had me recommending it to people within the first ninety pages, so, here it is:

I love this book.
I love this book.
I love this book.

I don't scare easily when reading. I don't laugh easily either. It doesn't make much sense; In person, I feel like I have a hard time not reacting, not completely breaking down or laughing in shrill, pelican-like bursts. Anyway, American Psycho scared me, House of Leaves scared me, and Broken Monsters has been added to the list - the holy, horrifying trinity.

The descriptions of the murder scenes are honest and disgusting without having to beg for reaction. The "monsters" are fantastic, classic and almost beautiful with their symbolism and weird innocence. There is also old fashioned suspense here; like an old crime mystery on acid (and access to Reddit). The Dreaming, the weird source of the, uh, issues, is never really resolved or fully laid bare to us, and I suspect that it didn't, and can't, go away. It had me asking: "Where do Gods go when people stop believing in them?" a la Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Apparently, they go to Detroit. 

Beukes's Detroit really excited me. I've only been to Detroit once, but I felt comfortable and oriented within the setting of this novel, and this familiarity made the thing a whole lot scarier. I'm not sure if I was so familiar with this image of Detroit because Beukes focused on the touristy hipster stuff that everyone looks at (can we talk about the girl we saw in her high heels taking pictures of Michigan Central Station with her iPad?), or if I know more about Detroit than I thought I did. Either way, I think Beukes did a great job of describing Detroit without demeaning it, for showing us the life and love and fears of people, normal, good people (and some not so good people), in a place that is hard to understand.

Beukes didn't shy away from embracing modern technology, which was a great credit here. Reddit was part of the problem, streaming was part of the problem. This is what gave the horrible beast its power, and I loved it. What is scarier than something unintended, something private spiraling out of control? The cluelessness of the viewers, of the recipients, of the bloggers all trying to figure the murders out first, of the stupid teens sharing explicit videos of each other because it's amusing - this was the monster. The internet's and Jonno's misinterpretation and subsequent exploitation of Detroit, of intimacy, were the real horror story here. It's easy to gawk at ruin porn (and, also in the case of this novel, porn in general), to revel in the destruction, to share videos of places and people's misfortunes. It's easy. But it's not easy to ask why this happened, or how this happened, or what will happen next. This is a story of exploitation, of ignoring the humanity of a thing, which is a force scarier than any serial killer or empty city.

It's almost certainly unrelated, but pretty disturbing in its own right: my dreams also took on a lucid, careening quality while reading Broken Monsters. True, my dreams were about Beyonce, car insurance, and Fifty Shades of Grey reimagined as a musical, but they were vivid and upsetting in their papableness. I know this dreaming is entirely different and a lot more benign than Beukes's Dreaming, but it was out of the ordinary for me, so it was easy to blame this strange, wonderful book.

5 Stars: The satisfying moment in which you deactivate your Facebook so you don't have to see that weird art video of that girl puking ever again.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Spoiler-free summary:
Tsukuru Tazaki is the only one out of his group of friends whose name does not contain a color - his name, blunt and plain in comparison to theirs, means"maker." Though they were an inseparable group in high school, Tsukuru never felt as if he truly belonged. One day, his friends simply cut him out of the group. He reels from this rejection, becomes hardened without their support. Many years later, he begins the long process of learning what caused them to desert him without warning.

.....


I'm on a Murakami kick and I've been reading reviews. I think this tendency, second only to my sentimentality, is one of my greatest flaws as a reviewer. I'll be forty pages from the end, already forming my next blog post, noting lines and moments that might be nice to pick apart, and I can't help but read other reviews. My hope is that I am not subconsciously swayed by these comments and that, instead, I find something I can respond to. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage was a great example of this. Much like his novels, Murakami's fans (and detractors) are thorough and thoughtful.

A lot of reviews I've come across mention that this novel is very similar to other Murakami works; This is absolutely true. There is a troubled, despondent man; a weird undercurrent, peppered through with magical symbols, that may or may not have anything to do with the main plot; time is seldom linear; everyone is very quiet, and very alone. Having just read his massive 1Q84, I picked up on a few similarities that seemed directly taken from that tome: the weird paralyzed sex scenes, the devastatingly beautiful and distant girl, the emphasis on career. These more specific references did somewhat pull me out of Tsukuru's story, causing me to think more about the author than I normally would like, but, I am horrendously in love with Haruki Murakami. It's kind of sick. Every time the man makes the same metaphor, describes an artfully prepared noodle dish, slips into an alternate dimension, or mentions a classical symphony I've never actually listened to, I feel like I'm really getting somewhere. The self-referential nature of his work, intended or not, is one of the things I like most about him. He's trapped in the weird little universe he writes about. The alternate world his characters inhabit is bizarre because it's improbable and warped, but oddly soothing because we've been there before. Each novel of his that I've read explores one small, new emotion. The large details are much the same, but there is a different feeling, cold and hard, at the center of this one that made it seem much more utilitarian than his previous works.

I can definitely see, though, how less fanatical, more logical readers might be tiring of the same old tropes. Murakami is good, but he's Murakami, over and over again. After reading one or two of his novels, you probably have a good grasp on what he's all about.

That being said, I do think this is a nice introduction to the author. This book, compared to other pieces of his that I've read, is straight forward and quick. I was shocked to find that I read it in three days (as opposed to the three months I spent with 1Q84). There is mysticism, of course, but it's implied or muted in comparison to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle (which would be stop #2 on my Murakami tour).

5 stars: Puking as you kneel on the tatami, with Liszt playing in the background. Tomorrow, someone you've never met before will stare directly into your eyes on the train, and they will hum the melody of the symphony. Your stomach will roil pleasantly in response. You are frozen but for the subtle contraction of your insides.

Since I reference it so much, here is the link to my recent review of 1Q84: 1Q84 - Haruki Murakami

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Spoiler-free summary:
Elf Von Riesen wants to die. She’s beautiful and talented; She’s a world-renown pianist with a loving, supportive family, but she would still rather be dead. Unsurprisingly, everyone around her, including her sister Yoli, wants her to live. All My Puny Sorrows tells Yoli’s story as she comes to terms with denying her sister the one thing she truly wants.


.....


I was nervous about this one. I read the description somewhere and knew it would either be really, really good, or abysmal. I was also afraid that if it ended up being fantastic, it would really depress me. To my surprise, All My Puny Sorrows was both fantastic and, miraculously, did not make me want to throw myself off of something. I’m not saying it was a joyful book – it was just too elegant and restrained to make me want to do anything that wasn’t elegant and restrained itself.

Restraint is not a bad thing. Without restraint, this book would be uh.. globular? Is that an appropriate way to describe literature? If I had written this book, I would have been so caught up in the violent, explosive sadness – the incomprehensibility of that type of pain that, well, my book would have been incomprehensible too. Toews takes something too painful to bear and makes it succinct and beautiful without compromising the intensity of the subject matter. The writing is quiet and deliberate. She wraps up something beastly in the tight, measurable confines of distant childhood memories, travel costs, and scheduled hospital visits.

I suppose the above observation ties into the reviews stating that this is not a book about death and sadness, but rather about survival and the idiosyncrasies of life, which, through their improbabilities and quirks and impossible humor, make us want to live. Perhaps this is why, at the end of the novel, I did not feel the widening sense of despair I thought I would feel. Instead, much like the writing, I felt organized and calm – a little sad, yes, but in a systematic, palatable way. Crazy things happen to these characters in the present, but their responses are conservative and humble, often insignificant compared to their reactions of things past. Elf’s grief over her father’s death propels her into a present where her actions and reactions, such as toward her aunt’s sudden death, are muted. The real pain in this book happened long ago.

This brings me to the idea that, through their history, faith, and community, the Von Riesen family possesses some type of innate melancholy. At times I felt that the addition of the Mennonite faith, or, rather, the break from the Mennonite faith, did not matter much to the story. It could be that the Mennonites of my native Ohio are a bit more strict than the ones found in Toews’s story and my expectations are skewed, but the threat imposed by the overzealous, pushy neighbors never seemed present enough. While the Mennonites fictionalized here do admonish the family, and some of the Von Riesens can’t help reverting to the comfortable, but binding ways of their ancestors in moments of crisis (and this I found very convincing), I thought that the consequences for completely rejecting aspects of the society were not realistic. I was put in mind of a family not fitting into a small conservative town rather than a family of misfits disowning a way of life/rejecting an entire set of traditions that were once fought for, and killed over. I felt there should be more guilt hidden somewhere in there (or, is that what the father’s deal was?). Additionally, this lifestyle was so foreign that it deserved more line space; It was something I was genuinely interested in and I was sad that I did not get the time to become better acquainted with it. While the inclusion of the Mennonite faith allowed Toews to discuss the idea of inherited suffering, I wasn’t fully convinced that their family had come from this grief-steeped lineage. But, in the end, compared to the honest characters and the beautiful prose, this wasn’t that big of a problem at all.

Nostalgic, funny and sad, All My Puny Sorrows deserves a place on your shelf.

4.5 stars (Puking in the comfort of your own empty, tidy home, with only a little bit coming out through your nose).

Would now be a good time to mention my new rating scheme? The plan is to mention the “stars” I would have/did award the book on Goodreads (even though I’m not sure if I entirely like this method of reviewing) and then, a la J14 magazine categorizing your most embarrassing moment of all time, include a pukey equivalent of the rating. For example, a really crappy book might merit one star and would be like puking shards of glass onto your groom on your wedding day, in front of the congregation. The best book of all time, which is hopefully a five star book, might make me feel as if I had just puked so gracefully and beautifully that I am imbued with self-confidence, and have now transcended to a new plane of being.

This is not to decry or endorse puking in any way. I am just trying to make the best of my weird URL, chosen in a moment of enthusiastic, but perhaps misguided inspiration.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

CL Bledsoe's Virtual Book Tour - Idioms in Man of Clay

Welcome to Book Puke! Today is the third day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!


“Maybe they do it,” another said.
“They might,” one agreed.
“Mite’s on a chicken’s ass,” another said, promoting several to laugh.
Man of Clay

I grew up in a small town in eastern Arkansas in the Mississippi River Delta. It’s a place that maintains its own sense of gravity, one that’s difficult to break free of. The region could be insular, and generations of this insularity have led to certain peculiarities in stories, beliefs, and in language. I grew up using certain sayings I’ve never heard anywhere else, because of this.
  
When I was younger, I was embarrassed by these colloquialisms because they revealed that I was Southern, rural, poor, all sorts of unsavory stuff. We’ve all seen cheezy attempts at Southern accents in movies and on TV with trite euphemisms no Southerner would ever actually use, but I thought folks would lump me in with those fakes. (One of the biggest clues to a fake Southern accent I’ve heard is the pronunciation of “can’t,” which in natural Southern speak tends to rhyme with “ain’t.”) When writing Man of Clay, I relied on the natural speech patterns of my family, friends, and neighbors as a starting place to maintain authenticity, even though the novel is set a 150 years in the past. The funny thing is that a lot of the sayings I grew up with date back that long or longer.

One of my favorite sayings is to describe something by saying it, “ain’t much pumpkins.” Pumpkins are considered mostly a decorative squash, and as such, aren’t terribly vital; therefore, comparing something to pumpkins is to say it isn’t of much use or value. A little research shows newspaper usage dating back right around the Civil War era.

My father described a particularly industrious person as “A goin’ Jesse.” It’s difficult to nail down the saying’s origins, but the best theory I’ve heard is that it’s a play on a Biblical story, as many of these sayings actually are. Originally, the saying seems to have meant “to beat or thrash,” and sort of morphed into “thrashing” a particular task. It comes from a line in Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots."  So, the “rod,” is lineage, as in the branch of a family tree. But the saying makes a pun on the rod growing from the tree, as a switch. So the rod as a Jesse (think of it like a last name), and he was a real go-getter.

Of course, a couple well-placed sayings aren’t enough to make a convincing character or novel. Authentic language isn’t just about dropping “g’s,” either. It’s more about getting to the heart of the cultural milieu that spawns these sayings. I don’t know if you have to live or have lived in Arkansas to write about it, for example, but I suspect this is the case. This made a real problem for me, because I’m a white, modern guy writing about black slaves 150 years ago. When I wrote Man of Clay, I didn’t want to perpetuate lazy stereotypes in the way they pronounced words, which often leads to presenting the characters as stupid, which is different from being uneducated. My purpose wasn’t to present convincing slave stereotypes; it was to present convincing people. My primary goal was to be respectful and as authentic as possible.

Share some of your favorite local idioms in the comments section of this post!

CL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.

Tomorrow the tour stops at The Next Best Book Club where you can read an interview with the author!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lynn Kanter's Virtual Book Tour

This week, Lynn Kanter is celebrating the release of her new novel, Her Own Vietnam. Click the banner to see the tour schedule. Each day has different content! Book Puke is very happy to be a stop this week. 



This is a photo of me wearing the one uniform I’ve ever owned: the powder blue dress girls were required to wear to work at McDonald’s. It’s 1970. I’m 16 years old. I live in Albany, New York, and I’m dating a boy who’s destined to be a soldier. He’s the first and the last boy I’ll ever love.

Like everyone of my generation, I’ve grown up seeing national leaders gunned down in public. President Kennedy. Medgar Evers. Malcolm X. Robert Kennedy. Martin Luther King.

Now in 1970, the Vietnam War is raging both overseas and at home. Already about 34,000 American service members have been killed. More than half of all Americans personally know someone who was killed or wounded in Vietnam. And my older brother turns 18 – the age at which boys can be drafted.

President Nixon orders the military to invade neutral Cambodia, an action so illegal he has to issue the order in secret. In May, the news inflames protests on hundreds of college campuses nationwide. In Ohio, the state’s National Guard kills four Kent State students and wounds nine others as they protest peacefully on their own campus. Ten days later in Mississippi, two Jackson State students are killed and 12 are wounded when local police respond to campus protests by shooting hundreds of rounds into a women’s dorm.

Is it any wonder that 1970 turned me into a political activist?

Or at least it created in me the determination to become an activist. As a high school student, I felt (perhaps wrongly) there was not that much I could do. I marched in anti-war protests, signed petitions, visited coffeehouses where long-haired girls and boys sang protest songs.

In 1970 in my new novel Her Own Vietnam, the main character, Della Brown, had just come home from Vietnam, broken and isolated and feeling older than her 22 years. Something broke in me, too, that year, perhaps something as simple as faith in grownups.

Never again would I assume that the men in power – and they were (and continue to be) almost all men – had my best interests at heart. I realized that it was up to me and those who shared the vision of a nation that cares about all of its people to claim our own democratic power and create change. It would be the women’s liberation movement that forged me into an activist, but the Vietnam War lit the spark.

Almost 35 years later, I’m still at it. An activist is not just someone who’s angry – it’s someone who has hope that things can get better, and the conviction to invest in a future they may not get to see. That’s what 1970 did to me.

Oh, and that job at McDonalds? They paid the girls 10 cents an hour less than the boys – a significant loss when the minimum wage was only $1.45 an hour.

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.


Monday, November 3, 2014

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I'm not even going to try to summarize this one. It's about a writer and a fitness instructor who, through the publication of a weird novel, find their paths converging in unnatural ways. I'd borrow the official summary, but I think it gives too much away.

1Q84 is, unsurprisingly, pure Murakami. People are cooking, listening to classical music, having kinky sex, slipping into other dimensions, and looking at birds. Everyone is restrained and lovely and the world is hurtling by, careening out of control. You could really score some points in Murakami Bingo with this one.

You probably know by now that I can't say bad things about stories that include forbidden and possibly unrequited love, mysticism, or sad writers. This really has all the ingredients of my perfect novel. In fact, I was drawn to this story not because I'm generally into anything Murakami does, but because a strange series of synchronistic and tragic events (spurred onward by a possibly imagined cosmic connection) led me to it. I won't get into that though, Just know that I already felt like this was about me before I even knew the general plot, so I might be biased.

This novel is both elegant and unwieldy. It's immensely satisfying and antagonizing. I guess I just feel unsettled, which is exactly how I want to feel. As always, I adore Murakami for doing whatever the hell he wants: adding narrators halfway through the novel, combining them, playing with time and setting in ways that we were told we weren't supposed to, and pulling it all off with a cool collectedness.  

At almost 1200 pages, I do think the novel could have been shorter and retained the plot and general sense of wonder, but I honestly didn't mind or notice the length. Other readers have noted that Murakami tends to repeat himself, examining actions, scenes, and thoughts from multiple angles, leaving absolutely no room for misinterpretation. At times, especially when reading Aomame's chapters, I found this writing style monotonous and frustrating. I already know how Aomame is feeling - she just did or said something that showed us. Or, when strange characters or situations are encountered more than one time (the two moons, Fuka-Eri with her distant demeanor, Ushikawa's weird round head), we have the same description pounded into us again and again, often with the same recycled imagery - yes, I get it, I sigh, this stuff is weird. Stop telling me. But after a few
hundred pages, I began to fall into a natural rhythm while reading - it was actually soothing to be reminded of the weird hue of the second moon, of Tengo's father's sunken eyes. It was like stumbling upon a familiar friend in this giant, imposing world. I was continually reminded of the advice Tengo's editor offers him while he rewrites Air Chrysalis:

When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.

With that suggestion in mind, I began to recognize Tengo's simple and straightforward voice within Murakami's. Part of me would even go as far as to say that 1Q84 is the novel that Tengo is writing in the novel. He's writing 1Q84 in 1Q84 - I guess that doesn't make much sense when I put it that way, but I like this explanation because it's sad. I am telling myself that Tengo wrote it because Aomame was long gone, or was imagined, or had only existed briefly, there in the schoolroom, when they held hands for a silent moment. [I'm sure there are more analytic and thorough blogs out there that explore this idea. This doesn't seem like that far of a leap]. Either way, I do think there is a lot of Murakami in Tengo and Murakami used Tengo to carry the novel through to fruition. How better to describe a chaotic, twisting world than through the eyes of a man who reminds most of a country bumpkin? And Aomame, as we know, is supernaturally similar to Tengo, so she makes a nice, steady narrator as well. And then there's Ushikawa, who was a self-proclaimed fan of Tengo's linear and solid ways. They're all perfect, reliable narrators in a confusing, unreliable world. So, while I was intimidated and sometimes bored, I ultimately enjoyed the length and over-description. For every thing that Murakami explains 50,000 times, there are a hundred things he leaves completely dangling, yawning open, causing us to feel uneasy long after we're through. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Matthew Roberson's Virtual Book Tour

An excerpt from his latest novel with insights from the author!

Book Puke is super excited to be a part of Matthew Roberson's book tour for List! Remember to check out the other stops this week! Click the banner below for more information.


Synopsis—Vignettes of a middle-class American family told through lists, each reflecting their obsessions, their complaints, their desires, and their humanity.

A suburban family of four—a man, woman, boy, and girl—struggle through claustrophobic days crowded with home improvement projects, conflicts at work and school, a job loss, illnesses, separation, and the wearying confrontation with aging. The accoutrements of modern life—electronic devices and vehicles—have ceased to be tools that support them and have become instead the central fulcrums around which their lives wheel as they chase “cleanliness” and other high virtues of middle American life.

Matthew Roberson is the author of three novels, 1998.6, Impotent, and List, and the editor of a critical book, Musing the Mosaic. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, and Western Humanities Review. He teaches at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.


EXCERPT FROM LIST:
Trees the man climbed without thinking. [1]

Thirty feet up a sticky pine whose branches dug divots from his palms―no problem, if a Nerf football was at stake. Or a maple onto whose lowest branch the man had to be boosted, and from which he’d eventually have to jump, if a limb needed to be cut. Done, and done, even when his neighbor said he was nuts. [2]

Never mind the bad example for the boy and the girl and every other kid in the neighborhood watching him go up and up and up after setting his beer can down.

Ladders, though, gave him pause, because the little ones shifted when their feet wobbled, and on top of them the man corrected like a seizure victim. [3]

Or they had weight, and lifting them into place felt like pivoting some great stretch of heavy pendulum into the sky, circus style. One wrong turn or tired arms, and down it would come, building speed to land on him, or his house, or take down the fence. [4]

And even when safely in place, those flimsy round rungs against his feet.

And the open space below, and standing way high up and reaching left or right, stretching one foot off the ladder, to bang in a nail or reach a tricky corner with the roller.

Climbing onto the roof and then off, backward onto the ladder again, and down, down, not able to see, a paint bucket swinging from his hand. [5]

The handyman never paused once. [6]

But the man knew it would take just one goof and the ground would come at him like a truck, snapping his neck or caving his ribs or twisting his leg so the rough edge of a bone would shoot out.

That would give the neighborhood kids something to see. [7]

It bothered the man that the boy and the girl would remember him as old, a tiring, middle aged man with frayed collars and loose skin on his neck and only enough energy to go maybe to the park or for a bike ride but never both. [8]

That the boy’s friends would joke they’d never seen the man off the couch or even sitting up. [9]

That the girl would see pictures of the man at twenty-five and say, every time, You look so young. [10]

Not one memory of the man jabbering that his little boy could sit up on his own.

The hours and hours and hours they’d sat outside the car wash and stopped for every construction site, so the girl could look at the trucks.

Or the museums, or the zoos, or the circus, or the summer soccer for little kids, or t-ball―stuff you do with kids before they’re old enough to remember the first thing.

Days at the beach digging holes in the sand. [11]

All of it lost, except to the man, and to the woman, who remembered, more, the man’s complaints about diapers. [12]

INSIGHTS FROM AUTHOR:

[1] Man, oh man, did I used to be guilty of this. Then, one day, it dawned on me that I was just getting too damn old, and that I was going to fall out of one sooner or later, to no good end.

[2] Yeah. I’ve done all these dumb things. Usually without an audience, though. What can I say, trees are fun to climb.

[3] Ladders might look sturdy to an observer. Ladders are not sturdy. They are not sturdy at all. First time I painted a house, one went straight out from under me. I really do remember looking at it laying down on the ground as I approached it at great speed. Broke a couple ribs.

[4] Even the little aluminum ones weigh a ton. And they’re ungainly. I hate ladders.

[5] You just don’t realize how many moving parts go into something so dull as painting. Then you paint. And you realize. And it’s a little overwhelming.

[6] When I had help painting our second family house, the handyman paused plenty. He was confident but cautious. The handyman in the story, though, needed to function more completely opposite the main character. Our main character is decidedly unsure about everything; he’s still a child in a lot of ways, though he’s expected to be a grown up. The all-knowing, all-confident handyman is both a figment of our main character’s immature (though maturing) sense of the world and a practical opposite to the main character’s uncertainties.

[7] In their nightmares. I still see remember seeing, as a kid, a couple of dead people drowned in a canoeing accident. How blue their skin was. Those sorts of images don’t go away easily.

[8] I’m tired and middle-aged, but I’m always up for anything. Our kids these days, however—
they’re not. TV is somehow always more entertaining. We make them go, anyway. :) More often than not, though, they’re involved in activities we just drive them to and then watch—
hockey, soccer, music, etc.

[9] This was a running gag my friends had about my father. Dad did lay on the couch a lot.

[10] Don’t you hate that? Because if you looked so young then, god knows what you must look like now. You, yourself, lose track of the change, on a daily basis. The old pictures (and what other people see in them vs now) really bring out the contrast.

[11] God, kids can be fun. I miss those times. Getting down on the floor and playing with blocks. The sandbox. Those flimsy plastic racecar tracks. I never got one, myself, as a kid—the racetrack—though I begged and begged. Made sure to get my kids at least a couple. Well, one, and that one broke, so another. Then my father-in-law bought some for us. Maybe he had the same issues I did.

[12] Don’t miss the damn diapers.

*Tomorrow, visit [PANK] blog to follow the tour and read interview questions that probe at the content of List. If you missed yesterday’s post, head over to PhD in Creative Writing!

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Martian by Andy Weir

Spoiler-free summary:
Mark Watney, a botanist, has been stranded on Mars. His food, water, and oxygen supplies are low, he’s unable to contact Earth, and he’s pretty sure everyone thinks he’s dead. Needless to say - it’s looking pretty bleak. But he does have some flashdrives full of disco music, television reruns, and Agatha Christie novels. He’s also pretty resourceful. Watney details his strange stay on Mars in snarky, hilarious journal entries that reveal to us not only the inhospitalities of the planet, but the intricacies of one man’s personality in the face of danger.
.....

I really liked the format of this novel. Watney’s journal entries are both informative and amusing. I loved his self-effacing attitude, his gratuitous use of obscenities, and his distrust of everyone who isn’t him. I also enjoyed the sections written from NASA’s point of view – the scientists were shown in an honest, humanizing light. I think Weir is a master at pinpointing just what makes a person likeable. I found myself caring about Watney, which is really saying something because I usually like books to end with at least one heart-wrenching, gruesome death.

Sometimes it was difficult to keep the abbreviations and Mars lingo straight – there was the Hab, there was also the MAV, one of the rovers became The Trailer at one point, I kept confusing the crew members who left him behind. I took a day or two off from reading and had to reacquaint myself with the jargon and names, but I did get it all straight eventually.

It’s been a long time since I took chemistry, physics, or “Extraterrestrial Life for Beginners” (this was my favorite class), but it seemed to me that the science might be sound, or, might at least interest engineering types and readers of hard science fiction. I have noticed other readers calling this book “too sciencey,” and there were parts where I felt kind of bored/inadequate because I couldn’t get into the finer details, but I’m glad Weir didn't shy away from these technical explanations. Mark Watney made engineers seem pretty cool (think “humble comedic geniuses with supervillain powers”), and if this gets one person interested in science, I’m all for it.

There were times when I wanted this story to hurt more. Sometimes I wished Watney was less nerdy, interested in pirates, and content with being a l33t haxor type (this is a type), and more interested in some weird ill-fated love affair or the state of his own mind, but, I think Weir knew what he was doing, and by making Watney seem flippant, kept us invested in him for him.

I am not sure what this has to do with my reading of the book, but it’s interesting to note that Weir self-published The Martian on Amazon in 2012 and was then picked up by a publisher and the novel was re-released in 2014. The paperback is coming out in November and I've heard some really good things about the audiobook.

Buy The Martian today in a variety of formats from Powell’s Books.

Photo: Random House

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Flowers in the Attic - Nothing is Ever Dark Enough

When I was in school, there was only one book we chaste and innocent readers whispered about in the hallways. It wasn't To Kill a Mockingbird, which is, as so eloquently described by the Vernon Verona Sherill school district, a “filthy, trashy novel,” nor was it the Harry Potter series with its abundance of satanic Brits, and it definitely wasn't The Catcher in the Rye, which I’ll tell you about, if you really want to hear about it - it was, unfortunately (or maybe fortunately? I can’t decide), a novel with less literary merit: Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews was the only thing that was so raunchy that it became a legend.

No one I knew in school had actually read the thing, but it would bubble up in conversation every few years, and then quickly fade away. We didn’t want to talk about it – we didn’t want to think about it – that’s how bad we felt, but it couldn’t be ignored; We needed to acknowledge it and to share our forbidden knowledge. It wasn’t like the other strange, vaguely sexual things kids talk about on the playground – it wasn’t something we could laugh about. It wasn’t funny at all. It was almost as if the story of the Dollanganger children had really happened and we knew we shouldn’t get off on their misery.  

I am not exactly sure how my peers found out that this novel existed – someone’s older sister, perhaps? Someone’s parents? Anyway, it was so taboo that we banned it ourselves. Maybe there was some sort of social standing at stake? I’m 90% sure it was available in our school library (I remember an excited, scared whisper: “They have that book in the library here… oh my god”), so we could have read it, but we didn’t because we might be mistaken as being “into that kind of thing,” and that pisses me off now, but that’s a different story. I don’t think our school would have minded – especially if someone “responsible” was reading it (I am the girl who painted the cover of The Unbearable Lightness of Being for my square on our senior quilt…), but no one was daring enough, no one was willing to throw their reputation on the line to just get the thing over with.

I pride myself on being a fearless reader, yet I couldn’t bring myself to read this novel until this year. That weird social stigma was still there. I saw it was on Scribd, and I decided to finally get it over with. And you know what? It was actually pretty boring. The sex (rape? I don’t even know what it was) barely happened – the kids are disgusted with themselves, God literally strikes one of them down, and they generally take anything worth whispering about away and make it into something shown in an Afterschool Special. It was entertaining at times (I liked the descriptions of clothes and opulence and the occasional plot twists), but I feel letdown after the fifteen years of muffled whispering. I think the thing that most disturbed me in the book is when they randomly decide to drink each other’s blood or pee on each other to get some fabulous hair. These are the parts worth exchanging knowing glances in studyhall over.

Maybe the reason why we didn’t read it back then was because we knew that once we read it, the mystery would be gone. Or maybe we didn't read it because we somehow knew that 400 pages of attic life couldn't possibly be that thrilling. Don’t get me wrong – this is an amusing novel and I’d even go as far as to say I liked it, but it wasn’t the soulless black hole I needed it to be.

(But I love these 1970s paperback covers - they're perfect).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jen Michalski's Virtual Book Tour

Today is the fourth stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they're all searching for a place to call home.

For your viewing pleasure, Jen illustrated part of her story, “Neighbors,” which you can find in her new collection.


*Tomorrow, head over to HTML Giant to read about the endings of stories--if they end at all. If you missed yesterday’s post, go to the blog The Next Best Book Club to read an excerpt of another great story in the collection and to experience Jen’s funny and educational author insights!

Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize; the short story collection Close Encounters; and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Désirée Zamorano's Virtual Book Tour: Setting & The Amado Women

Book Puke is happy to be the next stop on Désirée Zamorano's virtual book tour! Today's post is about the influence of setting in Désirée's novel The Amado Women. Tomorrow, stop by HTML Giant!



Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.


Images of The Gamble House - 
Masterwork of Greene & Greene, Jeanette Thomas, 
Univ. of So. Calif. 1989, ISBN 0-9622296-1-X
1. Pasadena, CA: The Arts and Crafts movement was the foundation for many of the beautiful homes in Pasadena.  Architects Greene and Greene were Pasadena brothers.  Sylvia Levine (Amado) had dreamed of living in a craftsman home, but her husband Jack insisted on turnkey.

2. A group of people settled in Pasadena to escape the treacherous winters of Indiana. The climate is fairly mild year round, about 60-70 F, making it, for them, an ideal place to live.

http://wikitravel.org/upload/en/thumb/d/da/PasadenaPalmTrees.jpg
 3.  A recent tongue-in-cheek online article, based on housing prices, cultural events and number of private schools, listed Pasadena as the snobbiest mid-size town in the country. Sylvia’s children attend a private school.

http://hometown-pasadena.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Pasadena-Huntington-Japanese-Garden.jpg
4.  Balzac said, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” The Huntington in Pasadena is a spectacular venue representing the railroad fortune of the Huntington family. Mercy Amado loves taking her granddaughters here, to visit Pinkie and Blue Boy, walk through the botanical gardens, or for a fancy high tea in the restaurant. 

5. Los Angeles, CA. Taken from the rooftop bar of Ace Hotel, downtown LA.  Los Angeles has beautiful old buildings in its downtown historic district.  Although Nataly Amado waits tables in a sleek and modern restaurant, Ace Hotel is somewhere she would have hung out with her friend and artist Yahaira, eyeing the men.

6. Demographics: Latinos comprise nearly 50% of the population of Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, yet fewer than 5% of all major film roles. In 1997, the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival was created to award filmmakers and discuss Latina/os in cinema.

7. Downtown LA’s art district and literary communities are exploding, from the artist’s lofts, residencies to the literary events.  Celeste Amado would have discovered investment opportunities, while Nataly might have cracked the gallery scene. 

Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.
The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

App Awareness: the OverDrive Media Console

The OverDrive Media Console is a really great app and I want to tell you about it. Basically, it's a way to access your library's digital catalog. You can check out ebooks, audiobooks, music, and movies according to the terms of your library. You sign in with the credentials you use to access your library's website - a local librarian can get you set up. It's really, really easy. I have a few library memberships, but it seems like they all accessed the same digital library (The Ohio Digital Library). I am sure if you had more varied library memberships than I, you would be able to access other repositories.

I mainly use OverDrive for audiobooks. I check out the book I want, download it, and then listen to it in the car as I drive to work. Selection depends on your library, but I have been able to get some really current, in-demand books through the program. I checked out a few ebooks and I was able to download and read them with the Kindle app, but I think you could read them with a different program (I am not entirely sure). Books expire at the end of your library's designated borrowing time and are removed from your device.

Available for iOS, Android, Kindle, Nook, Windows Phone, and desktop platforms, OverDrive makes it easy to sync your reading progress across all of your devices. I have been using it on my Nexus 5 and have no complaints about the OverDrive app. The Ohio Digital Library's interface, however, could use some work, but it's nothing that really hinders my experience. I like that I can add titles to a wishlist and immediately see if they've already been checked out by someone else.

It's a free app (and is produced by a local (to me) company!) so it's worth a try! It's one of my most used apps.

https://www.overdrive.com/

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

Spoiler-free summary [is it just me, or does the "official" summary of this one give away a bit too much?] : Peter, an English pastor with a turbid past, has been chosen to go to the planet Oasis and spread the word of God. He is to serve the humans maintaining the base and the strange, tragic alien race living on the planet. Peter's wife Bea has not been chosen to join him and stays on Earth, awaiting his return. Their faith in God and their faith in each other is shaken as they find themselves infinitely far from one another.
.....

Physically, this book is a beautiful thing. I have a paperback ARC edition, but the pages are gilded and the cover is printed on this strange shimmering paper. It's one of the nicest, most satisfying paperbacks I've ever held. Every time I pick this book up, I can't help but look at it under the light. I also really love that the back cover is part of the design and isn't plastered with a summary or reviews or numbers - it's plain black text on a reddish background. It says: I am with you always, even unto the end of the world... I can't wait to experience the hardcover edition.

The story itself is captivating, but distant. Faber's writing shines brightest when Peter is communing with the Oasan wilderness - the descriptions of the rain were enough to break my heart. I loved the descriptions of the Oasans and their culture. They were wise, robed children. Because the writing is restrained and quiet, I couldn't help but feel we were being robbed of some grotesque, but shattering emotional climaxes. I wanted Peter to burst out of himself. I wanted Peter to do something salacious. I wanted him to want to die. And maybe these things did happen (I definitely think there was more to Peter's sexual intent with Jesus Lover 5 and Granger), but they didn't appear on the page. I can appreciate this - there is an elegance and an implicit trust between writer and reader in leaving things unsaid, but there is also a maddening sense of incompletion. Part of me thinks that this was intentional. We were supposed to feel hollow and grasping at the end of this. We were supposed to want more - but there is nothing more, and we are forced to achingly accept.

I have read quite a few reviews claiming that this book had a "great biblical message" or was in some way pro-faith. I've also seen a few reviews, mostly writing from a Christian point of view, claiming that this novel was anti-Christianity. This intrigues me because, while the characters and their motives are religious, I did not find the message of this novel to be religious, nor did I find it to be non-religious. For me, the message was more about the power of needing. There was a weaknesses in Peter and Bea's relationship, which just happened to include Christianity, but also included a lot of other things. I think the Oasan's need for religion mirrored a similar wanting in Peter and Bea, and this facet of their characters was filled by various things throughout the story: love and intimacy, drugs, religion. This was a novel about filling vast, painful chasms.

Buy The Book of Strange New Things in hardcover on October 28, 2014. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Caryn Rose's Virtual Book Tour: Book Review & The Author's Thoughts on her Characters!

 I am delighted to be a part of Caryn Rose's virtual book tour! Remember to follow the link below to visit the other tour stops for additional content!

I think this is the first novel I've read that focuses on baseball. I was scared at first - Do I know enough about baseball? Will I like a female character who does zany things to get over a man or two? Is there enough time in the baseball season for a novel to take place? The answer to all of the above is yes.

I like baseball, but I have to admit, I don't know much about how it works in other cities. I've lived in Northeast Ohio my entire life, so, I suppose I am a Cleveland Indians fan. I've only been to Cleveland Indians games, so it was fun to learn about the traditions and quirks of the various stadiums and towns Laurie visits. I was a little sad, however, that the characters' visit to Cleveland was so lackluster. The stadium was unremarkable, the "drumming guy" (who I have always found sweet in an idiosyncratic way) was annoying, their trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was tainted by an unwanted guest. I'm kidding, of course. I can't blame Laurie - I'd rather be in New York too.

Knowing enough about baseball to watch a game with enthusiasm, I sometimes found Laurie's confusion about the rules of the game monotonous. I didn't need the rules explained to me, so I was frustrated at times, but I can see how these scenes are beneficial to readers who are unfamiliar with baseball. Rose does a nice job of explaining baseball simply. I wish she would write an explanation of the rules of football, because I still do not understand that sport. As the book progresses, Laurie develops a firm grasp on the game and readers are able to enjoy the characters enjoying the game.

I appreciated how Laurie takes what should have been a horrible time in her life and makes it into something remarkable. She never despairs for long, even though she probably should. She loses her job, but it ends up being a great thing. Her boyfriend cheats on her, but she can do better. She is able to pursue her new passion without the constraints of a schedule and, unlike most of us, is aware of her opportunities before they have passed. She is reckless in her self-discovery - it's refreshing.

The characters of Eric, Peter, and Kirk were especially resonant for me. The banter between Eric and Peter
is witty and sweet. Everyone has friends like them - those two that make every outing into a show and, while they're ridiculous and verge on the embarrassing, you can't help but smile. Kirk is the quintessential ex-boyfriend. I feel sorry for him, but I also want to give him a stern talking to. I think I've dated him.

A Whole New Ballgame is a nice late summer read and I recommend it to baseball and non-baseball fans alike.


.....


A Whole New Ballgame is the story of a 20-something woman who finds comfort and solace in baseball as her carefully ordered world starts to unravel. 26-year-old Laurie Nicholson thinks she’s beginning to sort things out when it comes to life, work, and love. When a sudden declaration from an on-again, off-again boyfriend inspires her to take a risk, only to meet with crushing heartbreak instead, Laurie finds herself searching for refuge.

A chance encounter with Eric Morris and Peter Ellis, two friends spending their summer visiting every ballpark in America, offers Laurie an unexpected way to salve her wounds. Despite growing up in Boston surrounded by Red Sox fans, she wasn’t a fan of the game–until Eric and Peter’s enthusiasm turn that around and she falls in love…with baseball.

Read quotes that introduce you to characters and the author’s perspective on those characters!

Meet Laurie:
“Laurie had been sure that she didn’t want and didn’t have time for a serious relationship, the need to account to someone for where you were and what you were doing, the time suck of weeknight dinner dates, losing weekends to brunches and football games or movies.”

I am always looking to create female lead characters that a reader can relate to. She can’t be so perfect that the reader is suspect, and she can’t be so flawed that the reader loses sympathy. I want her to make mistakes that the reader has made (or at least can identify with), and I want her to grow in a way that isn’t too Lifetime daytime movie-like.

So far, my female leads spend a lot of time questioning the status quo, and not accepting a set path based on societal expectations. I’m not writing anarchist Freegans, but even in 2014, women are second-guessed on small decisions, like not taking their husband’s last name, for postponing children or marriage. And I’ve watched friends and acquaintances get railroaded into a decision or a path that they didn’t choose. So, I like to write about options, and I like to write about characters who are figuring things out.

I am also proud that all of my books pass the Bechdel Test. (The Bechdel Test asks if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man).

Meet Eric & Peter:
“After the next player swung at balls and sat down again (‘He struck out,’ Eric explained, showing her notations on his scorecard), Peter excused himself and jogged up the aisle. Just as the next inning was about to begin, he returned with a magazine-sized book and handed it to Laurie. ‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘This will help.’”

I am a big fan of “nice guys” and I like to let them win. I put the phrase in quotation marks because this is a hot topic these days. Guys who “act” nice to try to get a girl vs. guys who just genuinely are nice, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. I also wanted to write about a close male friendship and pay tribute to that.

Eric and Peter are fun, smart, handsome guys who aren’t jerks and who genuinely like women. I got tired of the jerks winning, so I wrote a story in which the good guys did — but they’re not SO good that they’re not believable.

Meet Ryan:
“Marilyn glared at Ryan, who was smoking a cigarette despite the large (SERIOUSLY) NO SMOKING *ANYTHING AT ALL signs taped to the walls around the reception area, and despite his pregnant ex-wife sitting directly in range of his second-hand smoke.”

You think you know who he is, but you really don’t, because he’s an amalgamation of dozens of musicians I have known over the years. (This was also a problem with my first novel, where even close friends insisted they knew which particular musician I had based a character on. They were wrong).  The aspect of their characters that allows artists to take chances and be creative can also give them license to be a total jerks. I’ve watched people be blinded by this, both in romantic and platonic relationships.

Meet Kirk:
“The other thing that had changed since Kirk had moved back to Atlanta were his politics. After six years in Boston, he had gone from a wide-eyed kid from the South who didn’t know much about politics, period, to volunteering for John Kerry in the 2004 election. Laurie blamed his friends, and sheer laziness, for the political reversion.

It was fun to write a villain, although I will confess I had to tone it down over the course of various drafts. He is an amalgamation of exes I have known, seen, and watched, whether in my own life or that of friends and people around me. Like Laurie, he is also struggling with what he thinks he’s “supposed” to be doing, instead of just doing what makes sense to him.

In one of the various drafts of the novel, I had an epilogue in which Laurie goes off to Spring Training with Eric and Peter and runs into Kirk, who’s there with his fiancée, a war widow with a young child. It was an interesting scene, but I ended up going to the end of the 2007 baseball season because, well, you write what you know.


Caryn Rose is a Brooklyn-based writer and photographer who documents rock and roll, baseball and urban life. From 2006-2011, she authored the groundbreaking blog metsgrrl.com, covering baseball and the New York Mets. A Whole New Ballgame is her second novel. You can find her at jukeboxgraduate.com and on Twitter at @carynrose and at @metsgrrl during the season. Purchase A Whole New Ballgame HERE