Friday, July 26, 2013

Boy's Life, by Richard R. McCammon

I suppose it is human nature to idealize our own past.  As we age, we recall the good ol' days when things were simpler.  Nothing beats the nostalgia of our remembered childhood.  A certain toy or a snippet of a
song can transport us back to an earlier time, when the biggest thing most of us had to worry about was our little league team's record, or when the next installment of our favorite comic was coming out.

Ok, I know that the past was not nearly as idyllic as "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Brady Bunch" would have us believe.  There was ugliness-child abuse and alcoholism and racism and poverty are not exactly new phenomenon in human history.  But if you were lucky, and you grew up in the 60s and 70s in America, your dad had a decent job in a mill or a factory, mom was home to greet you after school with a snack, and your summer was full of bike-riding and swimming and catching fire-flies.  It is that America that exists in Richard McCammon's Zephyr, Alabama, the setting of his novel Boy's Life.  The main character, Cory, is a 12 year old boy, in that awkward phase we now call the 'tweens.  His dad was a milkman, his mom a stay at home mother, and he and his four best friends loved comics and baseball and looking for arrowheads.  But, just as we know that the good ol' days weren't always that good, Zephyr has its secret horrors hiding below the surface.  One morning, on the way to school, Cory and his father see a car go over the guardrail and into the lake.  Cory's dad jumps in to save the driver, only to find that he is already dead-his face unrecognizable, a piano wire wrapped around his throat, handcuffed to the steering wheel.  This incident haunts Cory's father, and throughout the course of the novel we find out what happened to the man in the car.  The novel takes place over the course of a year, and is chock-full of magical happenings, culminating in the resolution of the original mystery.

The novel is written very much in the style of "Stand By Me" by Stephen King, and there appeared to be a few send-ups to the great man himself-a pet that comes back from the dead, a ghost car that prowls the roads.  McCammon sets a scene about as well as King does, with evocative descriptions and creative turns-of-phrase.  Perhaps it was my own summers spent in rural southern Alabama as a kid, but the characters and story felt very authentic to me, even as the magic strains belief.  While reading the novel, one can take the story literally as a supernatural mystery, or one can see the magic as a metaphor for the magical thinking we all have in childhood, when monsters under the bed are real, and riding our bikes really does make us feel like we've sprouted wings to fly.  It is also very much the story of one boy going from child to not-quite-a-man, and realizing that the adults in his life are not entirely what he thought them to be.  Cory learns some hard lessons the year he was 12, but they are lessons that all of us learn at one point or another.  Most of McCammon's other novels sound very much like lurid monster fiction, but they are on my to-read list anyway, because I have to believe that the man that wrote this thoughtful, nostalgic book handled those stories with the same finesse he used writing Boy's Life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Horns, Joe Hill

I was excited to find a copy of Horns at my local Big Lots (a store that sells odd lots and overstock from other stores).  I read Hill's fist novel, Heart Shaped Box, and thought it was a pretty good effort for a first novel.  I will admit to being predisposed to like it-Joe Hill is the pseudonym used by one of the sons of my favorite horror writer Stephen King, after all.  But still, I thought it showed promise.

Horns, while far from being perfect, definitely shows Hill's development as a writer.  The novel tells the story of Ig Perrish, a young man who had everything going for him, until the night that his girlfriend Merrin, the only woman he's ever loved, is brutally murdered.  Suspicion immediately falls on him, but with no evidence he is eventually released.  But in his small town, everyone assumes he did it, and his life becomes an endless series of accusatory glances and awkward interactions.  One night, around the anniversary of Merrin's death, he got raging drunk and blacked out.  When he awoke, he had more than just the worst hangover of his life-he had grown a pair of horns.  People suddenly start confessing their deepest, darkest desires to him, and he discovers that he can nudge people into acting on those desires in a way they would never have dreamed.  One of those people is his brother, Terry, who confesses something that starts a chain reaction of revenge that almost destroys Ig and everyone he cares about.

I thought that Horns felt more mature than Heart Shaped Box.  There was no real explanation of where the horns came from, but like his father he wrote a story that hooked me enough that I didn't really care.  I thought that sometimes he was a little too on-the-nose in his devil references...Ig's name being so close to the word for a church community, the blue skirt he ends up in later in the book (Devil in a Blue Dress)...I felt like these little flourishes weren't really necessary.  But Ig himself is pretty well written, and Hill did a good job making you feel what he was feeling when all of these things started happening to him.  And the premise itself is interesting.  What would it be like to hear everyone's most base desires, or to touch them and see all of the bad things they've ever done?  Frankly, if that's the Devil's job description, he really is living in Hell.


Monday, July 15, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed

Like many serious readers, I hate the "what's your favorite book" question.  Neil Gaiman recently said (and I
am shamelessly paraphrasing here) that trying to pick your five favorite books is like trying to decide which five limbs you don't need.  I can tell you books I've loved recently, or books I loved at various stages of my life.  I can tell you I loved a book I forgot I even read if you remind me what it's about!  My "favorite" book is a function of who I am today, and tomorrow that could change.

There are, however, a few books that moved me so profoundly that they are permanently fixed in my "favorites" category.  I prefer to call them "book you should read before you die". One of those books is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  It is a true masterpiece, raw and powerful, a master class on creating rich settings and authentic characters.  Now, Hosseini is back with another story about the history and people of Afghanistan.  This time, he explores not just Afghan culture, but how the intersection of Afghan and Western culture affects his characters.

And the Mountains Echoed begins with an Afghan folktale about a father's love for his daughter.  That theme runs throughout the novel, with characters finding these familial relationships tested by poverty and secrets and history.  The book highlights the many ways that families can nurture or hurt each other, and the many sacrifices that we make in an effort to give our children the best possible chance in life.  The narrator changes at different points in the story, as the action moves from the Afghan countryside to Kabul to Europe and America.  The characters are all connected to each other in a delicate web of relationships-parents, children, siblings, spouses.  The plot is intricately crafted, with each section picking up from the one previous in ways that show the interconnectedness of us all.

The most poignant part for me was the relationship between chauffeur Nabi and his rich employer.  Despite the fact that Nabi is the catalyst for one of the most heart-wrenching betrayals in the book, through his story you are able to see his inherent goodness and compassion.  When his employer's wife deserts him after a sudden illness, it is left to Nabi to stay and take care of him, and the relationship that develops shows how deeply Hosseini understands the ties that bind us to the people we love, even outside of blood relations.

Hosseini does his usual good job exposing the inequalities of men and women in Afghan society, in a way that is not politicized or overly dramatic.  Each of the female characters in forced by circumstance to either conform to the gender roles assigned to them, or to escape.  Parwana is bound to her village in order to care for her disabled sister, and lives a desperate life of unfulfilled dreams of love.  Nila Wahdati, spoiled daughter of a wealthy family, writes poems about love, desire, and sex in 1950s Kabul, and is ultimately driven away from her husband and her country to escape the beautiful cage she felt she was living in.  Though she is by no means a sympathetic character, you can't help but feel sad for her desperate attempts to find love and happiness outside of herself, since she never finds it within.  Even the female characters who never lived in Afghanistan, the daughters of the original main characters, struggle to meet the responsibilities that their parents place on them as good Afghan women.  And the Mountains Echoed is not on my "read before you die" list, but it is definitely one of my favorites of the moment.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Lion is In, Delia Ephron

Some families are gifted with a creative streak that seems to be encoded in the DNA.  That is how artistic
dynasties such as the Barrymores and the Fondas are born.  While both of those famous families shared their gifts mostly in front of the camera, they would be nothing without the efforts of people like the Ephrons.  Delia Ephron, author of The Lion is In, is one of four sisters born to a Jewish family in Beverly Hills.  The most famous of the sisters is probably Norah, who was nominated three times for an Academy award for Original Screenplay, and who won the BAFTA for her movie When Harry Met Sally.  Sadly, Norah died of complications from leukemia in 2012, but her sisters-writers all-are carrying on the family tradition of excellence in screenwriting and journalism.

Delia Ephron is probably best known for her screenplay for You've Got Mail, but she has also written several books for both adults and young people.  Her 2012 novel, The Lion is In, is a quirky novel, part Boys on the Side, part Thelma and Louise, that showcases the usual cast of lovable, flawed female characters.  We start with Lana and Tracee-Lana, a recovering alcoholic with an anger problem, and her best friend Tracee, runaway bride (at least, she convinced herself she was going to be a bride) and kleptomaniac.  On the run from the police, they pick up Rita walking along the side of the road.  Rita is running away from her Holy Roller husband and stifling life.  When their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are forced to find shelter in a run-down night club, where they meet Marcel.  Marcel will have a profound effect on all of their lives, helping each of them figure out something important about themselves that allows them to find the strength to take control of their lives.  Oh, and for what it's worth, Marcel is a lion.

In true female buddy story style, the plot plays out like a comedy of errors, with lots of slightly ridiculous situations interspersed with moments of insight.  The most moving of the storylines is Rita's.  While Tracee and Lana both created a lot of their own problems through bad life choices, Rita's life was the result of falling into a bad marriage, and being bullied into submission by her domineering husband.  This very short novel is not long on substance, but it is an enjoyable read, with enough quirks to make it interesting, despite the somewhat cliched themes about women finding their own power.

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Gargoyle

For our book club selection last month, a friend offered up the book The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson.  She had read it earlier this year, and she was curious to see what the ladies in my book club thought of this rather unusual story.  The narrator, who is never named in the book, is a fast living former porn star and current porn producer.  He's basically lived his entire adult life drinking heavily, driving fast, and having lots and lots of sex.  All of that changes one night when he starts having hallucinations (visions?) of archers shooting at him as he drives down a winding mountain road.  Before he knows it, he is trapped in his car at the bottom of a steep ravine, slowly burning to death.  When next he is conscious, he discovers he is in the burn unit at a local hospital, a place that will be his home for the better part of a year.  A couple of months into his recovery, a stray psych patient walks into the room and acts as though she knows him.  Her name is Marianne Engel, admitted for delusions related to schizophrenia.  An artist by trade, she carves large, menacing gargoyles.  And as she explains to our narrator, she's been in love with him for 700 years.

Davidson knows well how to use descriptive language-perhaps too well.  The entire first third of the book is a bit hard to get through-not because the story is bad, but because he describes, in great detail, the gruesome and violent acts perpetrated on the narrator's body, first by the fire itself and then by the seemingly barbaric but ultimately effective treatments he requires to heal.  The whole novel has a gloomy air, which suits the rather dark story perfectly.  Marianne believes herself to be a 14th century nun, who has lived for so many years because she must pay for sins she committed for and on the narrator's character.  Over the course of the book, as their modern day relationship progresses, we are treated to flashbacks told by Marianne that explain how she knew the narrator in a previous life.  Moral emptiness and redemption are ideas explored throughout the novel, both through the narrator's cynical views on his previous and future life (he has an especially elaborate and violent end at his own hand all planned out for himself) and through the contradiction that is Marianne's character.  She actually creates ugliness, in the form of the grotesques that adorn both her workspace and churches all over the world, in order to undo the evil she feels she has done.  Is she truly a 700 year old nun, or are the voices that she hears coming from the stone a function of mental illness?  Ultimately, the reader is left to decide.  Whether she is "saving" herself, or merely delusional, the impact she has on the narrator is profound, and he finds himself feeling more whole in his ruined body than he ever did when he was beautiful.