Sunday, June 22, 2014

Bohemian Hipsters, Spiritual Canines, Tolkien House and the Infinite Monkey Theorem

Fool on the Hill
by Matt Ruff
p. 1988

Even though Sewer, Gas & Electric was my first foray into the delightful world of Matt Ruff, I still have Ruff’s debut novel, Fool on the Hill, to credit for the introduction because it was this book, and not the former that a friend recommended years ago. I loved Sewer, Gas, & Electric so much that I convinced myself to save Fool on the Hill for later to, like, savor the goodness or something. I don’t know; clearly I was an idiot, as there is probably no limit to how many times one can enjoy a Matt Ruff novel. There is just so much there to digest and his style is endearingly ADD. I get the feeling that both of these books will be even more enjoyable to me the second time around.

I said in my review of Sewer, Gas, & Electric two years ago that Ruff is fond of massive character rosters and convoluted plots. Just like the former, Fool on the Hill boasts an array of irreverent, liberal characters just bloated enough to require a two-page cast list for reference (and you will use it if you read this book) and a complicated, messy plot that all comes together for a comprehensive final act. In Fool on the Hill, the characters are divided into five main groups: Stephen Titus George and Aurora (the ‘white knight’ and the ‘princess’), the Bohemians (larger than life college students that play around the edges of the plot), Luther and Blackjack (the animals on a spiritual quest), the sprites (invisible to most humans, but affecting the plot nonetheless), and an omniscient otherworldly narrator, Mr. Sunshine. Each of those groups is divided into subgroup consisting of various combinations, with others weaving in and out of the story—a pair of Ithaca cops, some engineering students building a float, Aurora’s impulsive but doting father, a preppy frat boy villain.

Ganted, I—more than most readers—really take to comprehensive ensemble stories, so I am inclined to like Ruff’s style more than others generally would. I did not in the least regret having such a large list to keep track of, but it should be warned that others might. That said, I think it’s worth pointing out that while Ruff’s characters are often of a similar hivemind, and few of them are intensively explored, they all manage to stand out in unique ways. One of the things I kept noticing about Ruff’s characters is that even the smallest one, a character who, in any other story, would be a throwaway, manage to reveal something about themselves that gives them some depth, like Aurora’s long dead brother whose spontaneity and spirit forever changed her interaction with her father, or the Bohemian who joined the group long before our story ever started because he was pursuing a member who dropped out after being assaulted by a rival frat brother. All of these things seem so inconsequential but it is really these types of details that fill in the space between the lines.

The story takes place at Cornell University over the course of a school year and there are a lot of elements guiding the plot, not the least of which is Mr. Sunshine, a ‘Greek original,’ who occasionally sticks his hand in to mold the plot directly but is mostly content to sit back and watch fate play itself out. The sprites were generally my least favorite part of the story, but it is their misguided but well-intentioned actions that release the evil that the human characters have to deal with in the end, so they are crucial, even if they never talk to anyone else. Luther and Blackjack were definitely my favorite parts of the story, though the Bohemians will hold a special place in your heart, just for the sheer ludicrousness of them all. This whole book is a messy but fun mix of adventure, fantasy, romance and humor that just keeps adding layer upon layer.

Fool on the Hill was Ruff’s debut novel, and I didn’t find it quite as riotous as Sewer, Gas & Electric but to be fair, I knew what to expect this time and that changed the way I read it. I’d easily put it on par with the former, in terms of humor, and I am beyond thrilled to see how much more Ruff has in store.

Monday, June 16, 2014

More Platitudes Than You'd Find on Grandma's Best Throw Pillows

Tuesdays With Morrie
by Mitch Albom
p. 1997

About 7 or 8 years ago, when I was working the Star Theaters box office, I once sold tickets to Mitch Albom. I even checked his ID against his credit card to make sure it was really him, not that I had any frame of reference for what he looked like or anything. Mitch Albom was the only celebrity I ever encountered directly in that job, and I didn’t even get to ask him anything because it would have been kind of awkward to say “Hey! You’re that guy who wrote all those popular books I’ve never read...”  Well, I guess I could play it differently now if I ever got to relive my brief moment of stargazing. This story has no relevance to this review; I just felt like sharing my momentary proximity with an honest to goodness Michigan ‘celeb.’

Mitch Albom made a name for himself working as a sportswriter for the Detroit Free Press in the nineties, but he didn’t blow up nationally until he wrote Tuesdays with Morrie, a memoir of sorts dedicated to his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who passed away after a long battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). Mitch had lost contact with Morrie following college and only got in touch when he learned about Morrie’s ailment through a Nightline interview featuring Morrie. Mitch set out to keep some record of his beloved professor’s last days and final words of wisdom and set up their Tuesday interactions in a familiar way: Mitch as the student and Morrie as the teacher in the last ‘class’ he would ever teach.

Each chapter covers a different Tuesday and a different life topic—family, regrets, marriage, death, etc. Despite being set up like a ‘class’ there was nothing inherently academic about the lessons this ailing professor taught. The things Morrie has to say about life aren’t particularly intellectual or revolutionary; he mostly just expresses optimistic platitudes about life and love and waxes poetic exactly the way you’d expect a retired English professor facing mortality to do. I’m not saying Morrie didn’t mean what he said, or that there is anything wrong with optimism, just that you are unlikely to read anything in Tuesdays with Morrie that you haven’t heard before.

I’m sure these interactions meant the world to Mitch Albom, but I’m a bit surprised that it was so impactful to millions of people nationwide. Unless you have your own ‘Morrie’ I am skeptical that this book would be moving to you; it induces some nostalgia for the college days, and kind of makes me wish I had kept in better contact with a couple favored English professors of my own, but Morrie didn’t seem like the kind of person I’d have connected with in college (I prefer someone with a little more edge and a little less starry-eyed idealism), so the things he had to say didn’t exactly resonate with me.

But then, Tuesdays with Morrie came out in the late 90s, when coffee table mainstay, Chicken Soup for the Soul, was ubiquitous, so I guess I am not too surprised that people took to this book so strongly.
I read this book in a couple sittings over two weeks ago and I’ve got to admit I’ve completely forgotten most of the stuff that was said, which isn’t to say that it’s a terrible book. It’s a perfectly inoffensive piece of fluff, and it induced a couple fond chuckles from this reader, but it’s admittedly a little too pointless for me. The writing wasn’t too bad, though, so I’d be willing to check out more of Mitch Albom’s work. His second foray into writing, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, is fictional, and I’d be interested to see how well Albom makes the transition between styles, but I’m in no rush to indulge myself on his work.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Free Willy's Killer Instincts

by Arthur Herzog
p. 1977

I knew I was getting myself into trouble when, two pages into Arthur Herzog’s Orca I encountered this line, about its main protagonist:

“Jack occasionally wondered—though not for long—what his sister was like in bed.”

Hm. Okay.

Though, to be fair, ‘trouble’ is what I was expecting when I decided to read a book with a giant killer whale on the front cover obliterating bay area housing structures while a flaxen-haired Adonis accosts it with a javelin.

(None of that happened in the book, by the way.)

I would feel bad for Arthur Herzog that his novel was so grossly misrepresented by ambitious cover art drawn by someone who clearly hasn’t read his book... but an epic battle between man and beast is far more easily depicted than the barely-concealed incestuous undertones actually found in this novel.

So, Orca is a book about this dick who gets menaced by a killer whale for a few days off the coast of Newfoundland. Jack Campbell and his crew, including his airhead blonde bombshell sister, her dopey hippie boyfriend, and a wizened old salt who is like a father figure to Jack (so, like, you know he’s toast...) set out from Florida to catch a shark for some Japanese equivalent of Sea World, but decide to nab themselves an orca instead after the alpha male kills the shark they are hunting. In their attempt to ensnare a live orca, they totally fuck it up and kill the alpha’s mate and the baby she is in the process of calving.

The orca proceeds to stalk Jack—about as well as a sea creature can stalk someone on land—which is to say it just sort of swims around all threateningly and destroys a few boats in the harbor. For contrived reasons, Jack apparently can’t just... drive home... on land... where the whale can’t get him... and hangs around like the dick he is, not caring that he is totally mucking things up for everybody. So the Canadians decide to go all Children of the Corn on Jack and basically sacrifice him to the whale by sending him out to confront the enraged animal, which is sort of rude and so un-Canadian.

At some point in the novel, the orca bites Jack’s sister’s leg off, which should be an indication that he should cut his losses and take the bus or something, but instead, Jack gets all obsessive and decides he must kill the whale himself. It’s not so much a poor man’s Moby Dick as it is a stupid person’s Moby Dick.

Intertwined with this idiotic tale of revenge is an even more idiotic love story between Jack and a professor of zoology, Rachel Bedford. Rachel is in town to study the whales and even though the first few times she meets Jack he is calling her a "stupid bitch" and generally being a crude mysoginistic asshole, they eventually end up sleeping together because apparently Rachel is into crude, mysoginist assholes. I lost track of the number of times Herzog offended me with the way he depicted his female characters, but here is a nice snippet:

She smiled warmly. “Maybe we’d better stay with our problem for now. What I should be telling you is... hop on the first bus and get out of here. But I’m not. Know why?”


“Because this is the most interesting experiment I’ve ever encountered—man against super-whale.”

“Cold-blooded bitch,” he said, half-joking.

“Also, I’m terrified. Kiss me, darling.”

But women aren’t just dumb and scared in Herzog’s story. They’re also entirely incapable of thinking for themselves. Rachel initially opposes Jack’s vendetta against the creature she has come to respect through her studies, even going to far as to join his final voyage with the intent to sabotage his efforts to ‘slay the beast’ but it takes about five minutes for her to change her whimsical female brain and decide she was in fact for killing the whale. No reason. Just ‘cause she finally realized that Jack must be right all along, and she just didn’t get it. The piece of dialogue that actually made me laugh out loud, though, read as follows:

“Rachel, let’s go to bed.”

“I don’t know if I can get my mind off that whale,” she said hesitantly.



Wow. Bravo, Arthur Herzog. Clearly you are an orca among the sharks when it comes to clever crafting of phrases. I bow to your superior wordsmanship.

But I digress.

I’d say overall my experience with Herzog’s Orca was a satisfying one, because it delivered exactly what I thought I was getting into—a quick read, a fair bit of head-shaking, and the literary equivalent of a summertime creature-killer flick. Incidentally, this book was immediately made into a creature-killer flick, but coming out on the heels of Jaws, Orca, sadly, faded into 70's horror flick oblivion. The orcas may have won the battle but the sharks won the war.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ireland Unfree Will Never Be At Peace

Star of the Sea
by Joseph O'Connor
p. 2002

“And yet, could there be silence? What did silence mean? Could you allow yourself to say nothing at all to such things? To remain silent, in fact, was to say something powerful: that it never happened: that these people did not matter. They were not rich. They were not cultivated. They spoke no lines of elegant dialogue; many, in fact, did not speak at all. They died very quietly. They died in the dark. And the materials of fiction – bequests of fortunes, grand tours in Italy, balls at the palace – these people would not even know what those were. They had paid their betters’ accounts with the sweat of their servitude but that was the point where their purpose had ended. Their lives, their courtships, their families, their struggles; even their deaths, their terrible deaths – none of it mattered in even the tiniest way. They deserved no place in printed pages, in finely wrought novels intended for the civilised. They were simply not worth saying anything about.”

Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea became an overnight hit when it was published a little over a decade ago, a sprawling melodrama set against the backdrop of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s. I included the above passage because it is the one that stood out to me most amidst the 400 pages O’Connor has provided for digestion. Though that is probably an inappropriate choice of words for a book primarily preoccupied with the topic of starvation, I think it’s nonetheless a fitting one, since there is an awful lot of material here to break down.

Star of the Sea took me awhile to get into, and—I have to admit—even at the height of its mystery I still couldn’t find myself enthralled or unable to put the book down. Period-driven melodrama isn’t exactly my forte, no matter how finely wrought the language is, and I found there to be a lot of filler in O’Connor’s story, probably to enshroud the mystery at the center of this novel—the murder of one of its central protagonists at the hands of another central character.

The entire history of each main protagonist is covered in extensive flashbacks, but half of the novel takes place in the present, aboard a ‘famine ship’ (the Star of the Sea), a passenger ship sailing for America carrying a great many poor and starving Irish who have given up everything they own for the passage, in the hopes of eking out a living in a new, potentially more promising landscape. The story is told from the point of view of an American author on board the Star, many years after the voyage, so we are allowed the full range of perspective—we know the hardships leading up to the voyage, the suffering aboard the ship, the many who never made it, and the disappointment felt by those who did make it, only to discover their coveted new life may not have been as forgiving as they’d hoped.

No character in Star of the Sea is entirely innocent, nor are they all thoroughly despicable. Even the most ‘villainous’ character has a well-drawn out history that makes you feel somewhat for his plight. My second favorite passage in the book comes from a chapter focused on a murderer and thief:

“The lexicon of crime became his favorite contemplation. The English possessed as many words for stealing as the Irish had for seaweed or guilt. With rigour, with precision, and most of all with poetry, they had categorised the language of thievery into sub-species, like fossilised old deacons baptising butterflies. Every kind of robbery had a verb of its own. Breeds of embezzlement he never knew existed came to him first as beautiful words. Beak-hunting; bit-faking; blagging; bonneting; broading; bug-hunting; buttoning; buzzing; capering; playing the crooked cross; dipping; dragging; fawney-dropping; fine-wiring; flimping; flying the blue pigeon; gammoning; grifting; half-inching; hoisting; doing the kinchen-lay; legging; lifting; lurking; macing; minning; mizzling; mug-hunting; nailing; outsidering; palming; prigging; rollering; screwing; sharping; shuffling; smatter-hauling; sniding; toolering; vamping; yack-snatching and doing the ream flash pull. Stealing in London sounded like dancing and Mulvey danced his way through the town like a duke.”

The book has a preoccupation with the multivocality of words and of silences. Although a murder and the torrid past love affairs and tragic deaths that led up to it seem to guide the novel’s events, it is really the starvation—the pain of hunger and a slow, agonizing death—and the division of classes that possess O’Connor’s novel. The privileged British aristocracy rather expect to find desolation and hunger in third world countries. That it was happening in their own proverbial backyard was unthinkable, and so many of the rich simply turned a blind eye to the Irish famine. This story is an attempt to give a voice to those whom society deems invisible; and this is a universal phenomenon, something every society has experience with at one time or another.

Like many things wholly ‘Irish,’ Star of the Sea is quite heavy and a bit depressing, but never without a touch of wit to break the tension. I’ll wrap up this review by including my favorite quip here: “Lord Kingscourt said he would need a short time to discuss it with his wife. (His Ladyship, it appears, is the wearer of the britches.)"

"Ireland unfree will never be at peace."
I couldn't stop thinking about my study abroad program in Ireland the entire time I was reading Star of the Sea. Probably this was because many of the characters hail from parts of Connemara, including Tully, the city my peers and I lived in for four months, and the descriptions still felt so familiar to me that I could understand the yearning the characters felt upon leaving. I had purchased O'Connor's novel while I lived there, but I held on to it, unread until recently. The above picture is one I took in Derry in 2004.