Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Review: Heidegger's Glasses

Author: ThaisaFrank
Title: Heidegger’s Glasses
It’s WWII Nazi Germany. Toward the end of the war, the Nazi generals are desperate, but don’t want anyone to know. Some of them have taken to visiting mediums; this gives them the idea that letters written to the dead which go unanswered will bring misfortune. The solution is the formation of a top-secret unit of multilingual prisoners whose only job it is to answer these letters, because “like answers like.” This group of elite prisoners is housed underground, in a manufactured village in an abandoned mine, with a mechanical sun and moon. One day the unit gets a letter from Martin Heidegger, who is not dead, nor is the person he is writing to, his optometrist. The Jewish optometrist is in Auschwitz; as a famous philosopher affiliated with the Nazis, Heidegger must be placated about his friend’s fate.
I downloaded this book free from Amazon; it’s no longer free, but it is still available, both in print and for kindle. From reading the description on the Amazon website, I thought that this book would be more about Heidegger; although Heidegger is a character in the book, he isn’t a major character. Nonetheless, since he is in the title, his ideas permeate the book, chiefly, what does it mean to be-in-the-world? Our own views of Heidegger are still inextricably linked to how we feel about his wartime loyalties, so it’s brilliant that Frank set this book during wartime, both to demonstrate how Heidegger lived at this time and also to imagine what it was like for those who were victims of the regime he supported.
The central characters are the Nazi commander of the camp, Lodenstein, who identifies more with the prisoners than with his superiors, and who spends his time trying to keep them all out of the view of those in power, and Elie, his lover, who visits the outside world and trades her flirtatious smiles for small treats for her fellow scribes. Interspersed throughout the book are letters and their replies (supposedly written by the scribes); they provide an ironic contrast to the actual action, since the scribes are required to maintain the fiction that those in the camps are being treated humanely.
This is literary fiction. It appealed to me because of the Heidegger connection, and the author does a great job of weaving the philosophy through the novel, yet keeping the story at the forefront. Even if readers have never heard of Heidegger, they will be able to enjoy the book. This was a gripping novel on several levels. It took me a while to “find my footing” (I kept waiting for Heidegger to show up), but once I did, this was a rewarding read. 4/5*

Article first published as Book Review: Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank on Blogcritics.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Interview with the author: Christopher Buehlman

I reviewed the book Those Across the River earlier this month. Now here's an interview with the author, Christopher Buehlman, a local boy:
After writing poetry and plays, you’ve published your first novel. What attracted you to horror as a genre?
I always loved horror. And comedy. My childhood reading consisted of Stephen King, Mad magazine and Eerie comics, so it’s little wonder I tap both kegs when I write. Poetry tends to come out in the pauses; short flings in between commitments.
One obvious advantage to setting the novel during the days of the Great Depression was the length of time that had passed since the Civil War. The days of slavery were far enough past to be historical, yet close enough to still be affecting people’s lives. What were some other advantages (or disadvantages) to using that particular historical setting?
The 1930’s were the last recognizably modern years in which you could take a town like Whitbrow and really cut it off. I wanted it to have to live or die on its own, without the prospect of the FBI or National guard rolling in to sort things out.
Can you tell me a little about religion in the story? The town of Whitbrow has Christianized their pig sacrifices to the extent that the preacher is one of the strongest voices for maintaining the tradition. How does Frank’s disbelief work against him?
Frank is part of the ‘lost generation,’ a very secular individual to start with, confirmed in it by his ghastly experiences in France. I’m not sure this agnosticism works against him; if anything, it leads him to a place of confrontation and questioning rather than resignation. Whether he can win the conflict with acceptable losses or not, I think we like him better than the ones who are willing to roll over. He’ll try not to fight of course, but he won’t roll over.
A recurring theme in horror is ignorance vs. knowledge. Generally, ignorance is bliss, and the story becomes a battle between those who wish to remain ignorant and those (usually one unfortunate hero) who must know the truth, no matter what the price. How do you see this theme working itself out in the book? Is Frank that archetypal quester for truth? Or is he blundering around stupidly? Or somewhere in the middle?
Somewhere in the middle. He wants to know, but he doesn’t want to pay too high a price. When he is drawn into conflict, it isn’t a matter of high-minded idealism so much as a sense of duty. He fights not for truth, but in order to be able to live with himself-he doesn’t want to be someone who runs away, so he makes himself throw in.
I think I could make the argument that horror is closer than anything else we have right now to classical tragedy. In this context, what is Frank’s tragic flaw? How do you feel about the horror-tragedy comparison?
I think you’re right on with your comparison. Perhaps the aforementioned sense of duty is Frank’s chronic undoing. He went to fight in the trenches because he, like so many others, wanted to do the right thing. He faces the horror in the woods because it has already begun preying on his adopted community-he might well have picked up camp and gone North again, and it would have been wise to do so. But I like Frank because he doesn’t always do what’s wise. He’s no action-hero, but he is a guy you can count on to do his best when things get rough, even if it costs him dearly.
I’m wondering about Dora as a character. During some parts of the book, she comes across as a fully-realized individual, with her own set of motivations, desires, and fears apart from Frank’s. Yet at other times, she appears to be merely a victim. Does Dora get to have a tragic flaw (i.e. would she be considered the “heroine” of the novel), or is her fate merely part of Frank’s ultimate punishment?
Frank is the protagonist, and Dora is, for the purposes of this narrative, caught in his story in the same way that Eurydice is caught up in the story of Orpheus. I think that your observation that she comes across alternately as a self-actualized person and at other times a victim is true for many of us. I wouldn’t necessarily assign her a ‘tragic flaw’ in the Greek sense; if she has a tragic flaw, it’s that she’s a sensualist in a time that hasn’t given women full license to inhabit that role. Eudora is a rich girl who walked away from privilege. She wears her hair in the bob favored during the more open 1920’s, and we sense that she wishes she had gotten to taste adulthood then instead of during the beaten-down 1930’s.  She feels guilt (again, largely informed by societal norms), but this doesn’t prevent her from enjoying life. And she is deeply in love with Frank, even if it isn’t clear that she is capable of being sexually loyal to one partner indefinitely.
The town of Whitbrow has ritualized the sending of the pigs in a way that’s reminiscent of the action in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In fact, I can imagine you asking, “What would have happened had Jackson’s townspeople resisted their lottery?” and going from there. Was “The Lottery” an influence for the book? What other conscious influences were you playing off?
As alluded to before, Greek myth had a great deal to do with this story-the muscle and skin of Those Across the River rests on a mythic skeleton. After I finished the first draft, I realized that ‘Salem’s Lot was an influence as well; both novels involve small towns confronting supernatural predation and slowly unraveling under pressure. You’ve got a keen ear, though-Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House might just be the best horror novel ever written.
Switching to the personal for a moment… how did you become Christophe the Insultor? Have I seen you at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival?
Yep, that’s me. I was asked to run the stocks (pillories) at the Bay Area renaissance festival in 1989. I was twenty years old. People would give me a dollar to humiliate their victim in the stocks-my predecessors had largely used props, and it was a photo opportunity as much as anything else. But that wasn’t enough for me-I started talking to my locked-up victims, telling them (absurdly) what wretched creatures they were and listing their faults for the amusement of onlookers. That was the genesis. Over time it mutated into a lane act independent of the stocks, and then into a stage act that still tours the festival circuit.
There has to be some relationship between a person who can invent creative insults and a horror writer. How would you explain it?

“All comedy has a victim” the man said. I think that’s true. I think that horror and comedy are actually very close cousins; we’re horrified when our friend falls down the cliff, but we laugh when he gets up swearing. I think laughter is a collective primate expression of relief; short-circuited horror, if you like. Of course, this theory should not be mistaken for science-these are just my own musings. In any event, I’ll probably alternate between horror and comedy for the reminder of my writing career-I like to provoke a physical reaction in the reader (or listener), because that’s what I want done to me.

Thanks for asking such thoughtful questions, and kudos on the graphic with the girl leading the pigs. I love it!

Article first published as Interview with the Author: Christopher Buehlman on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review: Year of Wonders

Author: Geraldine Brooks
Title: Year of Wonders
Description: In the 1600’s in a small village in rural England, an itinerant tailor sickens and dies. Although he had told his landlady to burn everything, those who had bespoken clothing demanded it, finished or not, and the plague started. Narrated by the tailor’s landlady, who also kept house for the local minister, Year of Wonders, based on a true story, tells how this village determined to isolate itself in order to avoid spreading the plague, and eventually lost two-thirds of its residents. The ill-educated townspeople tried everything they could think of to ward off the plague, after prayer seemed to have failed them, so the village dealt with accusations of witchcraft and religious fanaticism, as well as with those who would take advantage of others’ plight.
Plot: In a note at the end of the book, the author explains how she came across the story and which portions of it she fictionalized. Brooks deals deftly with a plot in which two-thirds of the main characters die.
Characters: Anna, the narrator, is all you could ask for in a protagonist. Though she was raised poor, she learned to read and write, and used the events she had to deal with to grow and even to gain knowledge. Her metamorphosis from uneducated peasant to woman of wisdom is skillfully portrayed. The secondary characters are also beautifully drawn, especially the Rev. Mompellion and his wife Elinor, Anna’s best friend, and Anna’s wretched father and step-mother.
Writing style: Brooks manages to write this story of death without being maudlin. The style is spare—the book is quite short—but eloquent.
Audience: This is literary fiction which would also be enjoyed by those who are interested in history or women’s studies.
Wrap-up: I really liked this book, which amazed me, since it is about the plague. The key, I think, is in Brooks’ choice of narrator; Anna is engaging and the reader cannot help but cheer for her as she bravely faces one disaster after another. One of my Top 11 for 2011! 5/5*

Sunday, December 18, 2011

2011--Top Reads

I decided to go with a top 11 list this year, in honor of the dearly departing year, and also because I couldn't figure out which of these to drop off the list. It wasn't my best year ever in reading for several reasons, chiefly because of my byzantine system of choosing what to read next. I can't go into it; it's a little OCD. Anyway, these are in the order that I read them. I can't rate beyond that. If I had to choose the top book, it would be New York Trilogy, made more surprising and delightful by the fact that it came from nowhere and made my head spin.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Yes, the title essay was funny, but the two that really got me were the one about growing up in east central Illinois (which I did too, at exactly the same time that he did), and the one about the Illinois State Fair, which had me snorting for the better part of an hour.

Songs in ordinary time by Mary McGarry Morris

Paradise Dogs by Man Martin. You all knew this would make the list. I haven't been able to shut up about this book or this author. I loved that it was Floridian in that weird and wacky Florida way. It was funny. It was poignant.  It made me laugh. The author did an interview with me.

Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Now, where did I get the idea that Collins was boring? Because he's not.

The Rose & the Beast by Francesca Lia Block. 

Shadow Castle by Marian Cockrell. Expanded ed. OK, this was my favorite book from childhood, but I got my hands on the expanded edition with two new chapters this year. The illustrations were just the same (gorgeous)! So I'm cheating and including it.

Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. You all know that I have a book by Alexander McCall Smith on the list just about every year. I hate to say it, but this was the only book of his that I read this year. My to-read pile is just too unmanageable.

New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. I had never heard of him. I'd never heard of the book. And so it was a double delight to start reading and find that I was blown away. I didn't understand it, but had fun trying.

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen. A time-travel thriller that really made me think. Terrific read.

Ironweed by William Kennedy. Try to forget that Jack Nicholson was in the movie. The book is a masterpiece.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. A small England village is stricken by the plague and resolves to isolate itself in order to spare the neighboring villages. While the narrator finds sources of strength she did not know existed, others in the village give in to the temptations that accompany their terror.

Total books read this year: 144. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reading Challenges

I'm pretty excited; now that I've passed my comps, I'm indulging myself with some reading challenges this year. I still have to write a dissertation, so I can't indulge to the extent I would like, but I figured I'd pick one that I was sure to complete. Here it is:
New Authors Challenge
All I have to do is read 15 books by authors who are new to me-- piece of cake.  Then I started thinking, of course. If I can do that one, why not add a couple more that I'll automatically accomplish? 

This one seemed perfect: 
The Hopeful Librarian
All this one asks is that I read books from my to-be-read pile. Since my TBR pile currently consists of one full 5-shelf bookcase plus 2 2-foot piles on the floor (and 200 or so free ebooks on my kindle), that's pretty much my plan this year anyway!

Which brings me to :

a challenge that asks me to read 12 free ebooks. Not a problem!

Finally, my last challenge is a memoir-reading challenge. The basic level is only 1-4 memoirs, and I've got enough memoirs to fulfill that in my TBR pile, so I figure I'm there.

So there you have it, my four challenges for 2012. I'll be posting my reviews here as I make my way through them!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Interview with Man Martin

Man Martin lives in Georgia and teaches high school, but his second novel, Paradise Dogs features Floridian Adam Newman, an alcoholic who, despite his sweet young fiancĂ©e Lily, can’t quite let go of his ex-wife Evelyn. Amid his plots to get Evelyn back, Adam is trying to figure out who is buying up land in central Florida, and for what nefarious purpose. Along the way, he delivers a baby, provides marriage counseling, and helps his son write obituaries. I loved this book—perhaps my favorite so far this year—and I was thrilled when Martin agreed to an interview.

I’ll start with the obvious to get it out of the way. “Adam Newman” and “Evelyn” owned “Paradise Dogs” in the past, but have since lost it. Can you elaborate on why you chose the Edenic imagery? Can Adam hope for salvation, or just make the best of the situation he has gotten himself into? Finally, how does Lily fit into all of this?

At some point when I began writing about a hotdog restaurant, I discovered the restaurant itself would never appear, that it would have closed before the opening pages of the book. Once I knew this, I realized I was dealing with a post-Edenic story, that the characters would be striving to return to a perfect world they could never get back to, and which perhaps never existed.  Then I just had a ball coming up with names. Adam and Evelyn, of course, and their last name, Newman means “New Man.”  Addison means Adam’s son, and Kean is a sort of Anagram for Cain. Lily Manzana’s first name resembles Lilith and her last name is Spanish for “apple.”  They’re to be married by Father Peel, completing the forbidden fruit theme.  Finally, my favorite name of all, Wriggly Adder, is a name that means wiggly snake.  There’s a few other allusions like that running through the story, but I don’t think a reader needs them to enjoy the book. It’s just an author having fun, although the theme is about trying to return to a lost “Paradise.”

Adam seems to have the gift of stepping into any role and playing it perfectly. Why is he such a failure, then, at his own life? Or would you question my characterizing him as a failure?

               Adam is definitely a failure at his own life, and yet he has a magical knack for fixing other people’s problems, almost always in the guise of someone he is not.  He never sets out to pose as someone he isn’t; circumstances seem to put him in that position, and he just goes along with it.  I really don’t know why this is, except that in the early stages of writing I realized Adam was the sort of person who could solve anyone’s problems but his own.  Maybe Adam is a miracle worker only as long as it’s in the service of another person, or maybe it’s only when he’s acting in the moment, without a grand scheme for the future. Maybe it’s because if he never got anything right – even if only by accident – the situation would just be too terrible to bear.  Seeing him pull a rabbit out of his hat every time he comes across someone else’s predicament makes it funnier – and more frustrating – when he’s such a wrecking ball in his own life.

Adam seems to bear a literary kinship to Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. Was this novel one of your influences as you set out to write this story? What were some of the others? 

Absolutely – I had that book very much in mind; it’s one of my favorites.  Both stories feature lunatic antiheroes who somehow create order out of chaos.  I hope, of course, Paradise Dogs is more than a rehash of Toole’s farce.  For starters, there’s the Biblical allegory you’ve already mentioned, and I think Adam has a more problematic and interesting backstory than Ignatius, and lastly, there’s the Disney connection.  In this book I also had in mind Fraser’s Flashman series, a despicable rogue who always seems to be on the spot as history is made. Lastly and most significantly, perhaps, I wanted to catch the spirit of P G Wodehouse’s hilarious romps, which always seemed to feature two or three tangled love stories plus some missing jewelry thrown in for good measure.

You were pretty convincing in describing Opoyo; are you yourself an Opoyo believer?

Yes.  The concept was given to me by Stephanie “J S” Buskirk, who once ran a highly eclectic reading series in Atlanta called Info Demo.  She conjectured that the universe is filled with this invisible substance, which is completely undetectable except insofar as it has the power to distort any communication passing through it, the way a glass of water refracts the image of a pencil inside it.  The only way to overcome the effects of Opoyul, she believed, was to communicate slightly off, never say exactly what you mean but always speak through some misdirection or metaphor to compensate for the Opoyul’s distorting influence.  It is sad to say that J S Buskirk did not live to see this book in print, but I think she’d be gratified to know her notion achieved some degree of immortality and amused that I had misheard her, that it is not Opoyo but Opoyul, a misunderstanding that confirms the existence of Opoyul itself!

Addison has a pretty cynical outlook on life, until the end of the book, when, in his “imagination he seemed to hear the grinding of gears of a deus ex machina lowering Zeus onto the stage to tidy up all the loose ends: unsatisfactory in fiction, perhaps, but extraordinarily gratifying when it occurs in real life.” Is Adam really The Amazing Adam Newman? Is there some other “deus” at work here? Or is the reader just being bamboozled (because here it is actually pretty satisfying in fiction, and it rarely if ever happens in real life, because life doesn’t just stop unscrolling at the happy place)?

What a freaking brilliant question.  If there were a Hall of Fame for Freaking Brilliant Questions, this one would be in the main gallery. 
Adam and Addison have a periodic discussion about what makes a proper story.  Addison says that since life basically sucks and in the end you die, stories should reflect this.  A story with a happy ending, Addison says, is like being lied to.  Adam agrees that life is sucky and ends only in death, but that’s exactly the reason he feels stories have to have happy endings.  We need stories to give us what life does not.  Paradise Dogs, itself, of course, reveals what the author thinks is the best ending of the story.  In true Man Martin fashion, I eat my cake and have it, too.  In one sense Adam and Addison get their happy endings, and they are as improbable and zany as anything in a Jerry Lewis movie or Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.  The diamonds are recovered, Adam’s fortune is restored, he’s about to get married, and Addison is about to kiss the girl.  But as you point out, life doesn’t stop “unscrolling,” and it only takes a moment’s consideration to realize the ending is not as happy as it seems.  Adam is not marrying Evelyn, but Lily, and he is essentially signing up to be a “pretend husband” in the way he’s already been a pretend doctor, lawyer, and priest.  Adam is an alcoholic and a pretty damn serious one – one of the last things he does in the book is steal the communion wine and drink it – his condition can only get worse.  Disney’s arrival, although it gives Adam a temporary financial reprieve, will prove catastrophic to the natural beauty of the region – a beauty Adam already mourns from previous “squalid” developments such as the destruction of the Old Courthouse.  Within the sadness of Disney’s arrival is another sadness, because Disney’s dream – as megalomaniacal as it may be – never comes true, and Disney does not live to see his new “world” created.  And as for Addison’s kissing Kathleen, her last words are, “This is a mistake,” and it is a mistake.  Addison’s brother is still at home locked in the bathroom.  Whatever the future holds for Kathleen and Addison’s romance, there’s bound to be some difficult and unpleasant times ahead between the two brothers.

There are several romantic relationships in the novel, and the characters have varying views on what makes a successful relationship, from “Praise Jesus” to Kathleen and Kean’s doing things next to each other, but not with each other. In your opinion, which of the relationships in the novel is the most successful, and what makes a marriage really work? Will Adam and Lily stay together?

The relationship for which I hold out the most hope is Johnny, Janey, and little Bateman.  They seem devoted to each other and their relationship is complicated by nothing worse than irritating in-laws and poverty.  If you play those cards right, those sorts of problems end up making you closer.  I hope Kathleen and Addison make a go of it, but I don’t know.  The fun and easy part of a relationship is that first kiss – actually the moment just before that first kiss.  Things get difficult when you start dealing with leaky pipes and grocery bills.  Adam will stay married to Lily and she’ll be there for the nasty ending that awaits chronic alcoholics.  As far as what makes a marriage work, what little I know I learned from my own father, himself an alcoholic, on whom Adam was partly based.  For all his faults, and they were large and numerous, Dad never stinted on telling people he loved them.  I have learned this lesson and practice it assiduously.  Each day, and several times a day, I tell my wife I love her.  I mean it, too, but one or both of us might be apt to forget it without the daily reminder.  We have been married thirty-one years next July.  Let not one day pass without remembering to be grateful for her.

More than any other passage, this one sums up the book for me:  “There was absolutely no reasonable pretext for leaving the hospital, and Addison knew this. All responsibility, common sense, and self-preservation were on the side of staying.  On the side of going was only his father’s request. ‘Okay,’ he said.”  Why does doing the absolutely wrong thing so often turn out to be the right thing to do?

Ha!  I don’t know.  Could it really be something as corny as following your heart?  I don’t know, and I don’t recommend you try this at home.  If an alcoholic offers to drive, you’re better off walking. Still.  Sometimes the wiser answer is on the side of love, not reason.  “The heart has reasons that reason knows not.”

How did you get to be so funny?

Thank you for saying I am.  Maybe the best answer was given by Steve Martin who said every morning he put a sliced tomato in each shoe.  That way, he said, “as soon as I get dressed, I feel funny.”

Article first published as Interview: Man Martin, Author of Paradise Dogs on Blogcritics.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: Those Across the River

                In Those Across the River, ChristopherBuehlmann gives us a straight-up horror novel. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t read much horror; usually it is too grisly for my taste. The descriptions of this novel intrigued me for some reason, so I took the chance. During the Great Depression, Frank and his girlfriend Dora are looking for a new start, and Frank is conveniently left a house in a small Georgia town (which his deceased aunt begs him to sell, not inhabit). The first clue that something is really wrong, of course, is that Frank and Dora are adulterous, since Dora was married when she fell in love with Frank. Although they appear in town as a conventional married couple, they are not yet wed. Dora has been hired to teach school, and Frank, a historian by profession, plans to write a book about his ancestor who had a plantation across the river. Stories of the ancestor’s cruelty to his slaves continue to this day.
                As they become more a part of their new town, Frank and Dora are surprised by the monthly ritual of sending two pigs (complete with flower garlands around their necks) across the river. The pigs have never been seen again, although two pigs a month should have produced a thriving colony of wild boars. When the town votes to stop the monthly tradition of sending the pigs, the trouble starts.
                I received this book from Netgalley as a review copy. It was a good “starter” horror novel, as the horror built up gradually, and the grisly descriptions were (to some extent) restrained. By the time things really get rocking in the horror department, the reader is hooked on the story and willing to put up with the gore in order to find out what happens. Typically, the protagonists make mistake after mistake, as they ignore warning signs until it is way too late. The only thing that irritated me about the writing was the repetition of certain phrases. These would first come up in a non-threatening situation, then the narrator (Frank) would repeat them in his head at various times as he remembered something about the situation. The phrases didn’t seem all that sinister, and the payoff wasn’t quite there when the phrases were repeated during the climax of the novel.
                All horror books are sick, and this one is no exception, though perhaps it is less sick than most contemporary horror. Nonetheless, the story pulled me through, and for a couple of days, this was the book I couldn’t put down. 3.5/5* (would be higher if I enjoyed horror J)

Article first published as Book Review: Those Across the River by Christopher Buehlman on Blogcritics