Wednesday, September 3, 2014

America's Appalachian Trail is Where it's AT!

A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson
p. 1998

Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a stark break from the fictional fare I’d been indulging in lately, and the first creative nonfiction book I’ve read in a little while. It chronicles Bryson’s summer of 1996, in which he set out to hike America’s Appalachian Trail from start to finish in order to catalogue the experience in his next book.

I’ve got this image of Bryson in my mind: a guy who set out to do something intense and admirable, who wanted to believe that this experience would be transformative and revelatory. Maybe that’s not quite right, but you certainly don’t set out to do a task like hiking the Appalachian Trail in a single season without expecting it to be the challenge of a lifetime, that much is made clear to the reader. As it is in life, Bryson finds out that the actual experience is not quite what he expected.

A Walk in the Woods alternates between informational and narrative chapters, leaning rather heavily on the informational, because, let’s face it, walking on a path isn’t exactly riveting material, even if there’s an awful lot of it. Bryson does a lot of fear mongering, making the task seem exponentially more dangerous than the experience ended up being, but it’s understandable. He probably psyched himself out an awful lot before he hit the trail, and there were dangers, even if he avoided them himself.

For the majority of his expedition, Bryson is accompanied by his profoundly out of shape old friend, Stephen Katz, who provides a bit of comic relief to the journey, but to be honest, I found Katz’s protestations more cringe-worthy than funny some times. I’m sure Katz’s idea of what he was in for was even less complete than Bryson’s, and since this wasn’t a cinematic piece of fiction, neither man made any life-changing discoveries. The whole book kind of leaves you asking, ‘so what?’

So what, indeed. Not far into their trip, the pair discover to their dismay that they will not be hiking the entire trail and in all, they end up completing less than half of the 2200-mile journey. And yet, in spite of all the disappointments, I find myself reading A Walk in the Woods and fantasizing about hiking it myself, just like Bryson and Katz. I know, after reading Bryson’s story, that I probably wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I’d like to think, and yet I still want to slap a pack on my back and grab my walking stick. There’s something to be said about the power of a real challenge. Knowing me, however, I’d probably be so disappointed that I couldn’t complete the trail that I wouldn’t want to do it at all to avoid the letdown.

Well, that and I don’t think I could physically haul that much around for several months without losing my mind. One thing is for sure, if you're doing it alone, you better like your solitude. And if you're hiking with a companion, you should be prepared to hate them by the time it's all over.

All said, A Walk in the Woods is a must-read for hikers, outdoorsmen, and aficionados of the AT, but it’s not the most interesting piece of travel fiction I’ve read, as it could get a little bland at times. Bryson tries to spice it up with historical anecdotes about the Trail, but ultimately, the book left me wanting more. Perhaps I will never fully understand the appeal until I set foot on the trail myself.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Don't Look Back

by Rob Thurman
p. 2008

I took a quick break from Rob Thurman’s series to let my mind recover from the all the angst by reading something lighter (hah! So much for that!) but I couldn’t stay away for long.

The third book in Thurman’s series is Madhouse, yet another action-filled, angst-ridden journey for Cal and Niko Leandros and their community of nonhuman friends.

This time there are two separate, unrelated threads guiding the book. The main plot is the resurrection and escape of a powerful creature called a redcap who once went by the name of Sawney Beane, the notorious 16th century serial killer. The other is a series of attempts on the life of Cal and Niko’s puck cohort, Robin Goodfellow, by an unknown assailant.

Business first: Sawney Beane is a case brought to them by an associate of Promise’s, who works in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. When Sawney was resurrected from ash after centuries, he immediately went on a violent and not terribly discreet killing spree; Cal and Niko naturally take on the task of finding and stopping him, but this takes an awfully long time because they keep getting their asses thoroughly handed to them by Sawney. One particularly nasty encounter leads to the introduction of a new recurring character, Delilah, the sister of Flay, their werewolf ally from Moonshine. Like Flay, Delilah works for the werewolf ‘mafia’, the Kin, albeit with a few less burned bridges; Delilah, however, considers herself more of a ‘free agent’ and does pretty much whatever she pleases, which includes starting up an intimate relationship with Cal.

Delilah is a pretty interesting character; she obviously has a bit of a dark past herself, but she doesn’t seem to let any of it bring her down. I hope she sticks around for awhile, though I’m not one hundred percent sold on her sticking with Cal. Delilah, unlike sweet little Georgie, stands on her own two feet without seeming to be simply a love interest for the lead. I hope we get a chance in later books to explore her dynamics with other characters, but we don’t get very far with her here.

Despite his near–imperviousness, appetite for ravaging flesh, and his creepy army of the dead, I didn’t find Sawney as terrifying as I was supposed to. It was more frustrating than anything. The battle with Sawney seemed to set the tone for this series: a bunch of flubbed encounters and proverbial stumbling, some big setbacks, rallying friends and allies, all leading to a boss fight and some messy aftermath. Sprinkle in a liberal helping of Auphe angst and voila, another Thurman classic. I’m not really knocking it. The formula works, for the most part, and it’s entertaining. But it’s hard to take any ‘Big Bad’ that isn’t Auphe seriously when we are told repeatedly how much worse Cal’s demonic ‘family’ are.

It’s the second plot of Madhouse that is much more compelling, as it involves a little window into Robin’s past. Of course, Goodfellow’s life spans such a long time period, this can only be a tiny, miniscule glimpse into the magnanimous puck’s legacy, but I suppose that makes it all that much more telling that it affected Robin so. The attempts on Robin’s life (and I assume, though it is never confirmed, that the crossbow bolt from Moonshine was a lead-in to this subplot) are the result thousands of years of vengeance for something Robin did long ago that he is ashamed of. To be perfectly honest, I don’t even think what he did was that bad, at least, not in comparison to the nasty things Cal and Niko fight on a daily basis. The whole plot serves to prove that not only is there more to Goodfellow than meets the eye, but that he is worthy of being Cal and Niko’s friend and the hero status that is thrust upon him through this relationship to the brothers. That is to say, if Robin feels that bad about something careless he did centuries ago, it cements the idea in your brain that he is not a monster.

The only thing I didn’t like about the subplot was how blaringly obvious it was who the secret foe would turn out to be. Oh, what’s that you say? An unknown assailant is trying to have a main character murdered? I wonder if it could be that random character that supposedly has always worked for him despite the fact that we’ve never seen or heard her mentioned before. Plus, Thurman went out of her way to make Seraglio likeable and mysterious, making it all that more obvious that she would inevitably betray them. And really, what the hell is wrong with her? She’s Robin’s personal cook for god’s sake, and she couldn’t figure out a way to off him discreetly?

In the words of the illustrious Nigel St. Nigel:

“Really? That was your plan? That has to be the poorest executed attack in history. I was two feet away from you all the time. I mean, you have to be absolutely, without doubt, the worst murderer I have ever seen.”

On the Auphe front, the demonic nightmares are conspicuously absent for the bulk of Madhouse but their presence is felt as Cal starts practicing opening portals and ‘traveling’ more. Cal took advantage of this inherited talent to rid themselves of Moonshine’s ‘Big Bad’ and he continues to practice using them to do more of the same in the future, despite Niko’s strong objections. It’s a bit ‘road to Hell paved with good intentions’ cliche, and of course reminiscent of Sam Winchester’s eventual reliance on his demonic powers in season 4 of "Supernatural," but it’s still fun to see Cal embrace something about his Auphe heritage and acknowledge that it gives him an edge over the enemy.

The Auphe themselves may not be physically present for much of Madhouse but they return in a big way at the end in a frustrating cliffhanger that I had to wait a year to see resolved the first time around and had me disgustedly chucking my book at the wall when I read it (and then silently fantasizing about the day I can do the same to my own faithful readers...). I’ll see you all in book four to discuss this latest turn of events!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Previously on Extreme Hoarders:

Homer & Langley
by E.L. Doctorow
p. 2009

E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley is a historical fiction novel based on the lives of real-life brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, Manhattan eccentrics who gained unwanted publicity during the Depression era. Taking considerable liberties with history, Doctorow has created a rich collage of 20th century Americana, presenting the brothers as ambassadors of culture in a way, rich treasures tucked away in obscurity, observers of history but not necessarily non-participants.

Homer—the younger brother and narrator of the story—and Langley are the only sons of a wealthy couple who pass away in the young mens’ adolescence, leaving them a spacious Fifth Avenue home. Due to a genetic affliction, Homer has lost his eyesight in his teens. Langley, meanwhile, comes home from the first World War in the wake of his parents’ deaths, greatly changed from the boy that left. Homer—blind and deeply self-conscious—and Langley—stricken with insanity from being gassed in the war—begin to slowly but surely shut themselves off from the outside world.

This doesn’t happen all at once. The hermit lifestyle evolves over time as Homer sinks deeper into loneliness and resignation and Langley literally constructs the walls to his own prison as he amasses a veritable junkyard of knick knacks and possessions that he can never seem to get rid of. Over the years they invite dozens of unique personalities into their home; gangsters, prostitutes, flappers, jazz musicians, and—for a brief period in the sixties—a bevy of hippies that float in and out of the brothers’ lives. They experience a wide range of American life—the evolution of pop music, unrequited love, techonological advance, the pain of losing a loved one in the war, organized crime risen from the Great Depression, McCarthyism and fear-mongering, antiwar protest, a battle with the taxman—before they eventually shutter their windows from the world.

Doctorow has done a wonderful job creating vibrant personalities for two notorious hermits that make them seem endearing and genuine; their motivations for retreating from society are well-defined and relatable. I felt moved by their plights at times and frustrated by their inability to connect at others. Their journey which spans many decades yet never moves beyond the confines of their home is very moving and the way Homer narrates his life tale, addressing a mystery woman named Jacqueline, gives the reader hope that—before the end of his life—Homer finally finds the type of love and companionship he has been seeking his whole life.

... Except that’s not what happens at all!

In a cruel twist, it turns out the oft-mentioned but yet unseen Jacqueline is simply a writer that Homer met once and had a nice afternoon with then never saw again. He constructed an imaginary life with her as he did several other women before her, and deluded himself into believing she would come back for him. Instead, Homer and Langley die, separate and alone, entombed and literally suffocated by their amassed possessions.

I waited patiently for things to turn around for the Collyer brothers but it wasn’t until I read the final few pages and put the book down that I realized I wasn’t going to be getting any sort of uplifting ending. I felt cheated; surely their symbolic suffering would come to an end, surely it meant something, but instead I just felt like chucking the book at the wall.

I didn’t think about the book again for some days but then I sat down to write this review and finally looked up the real-life Collyer brothers, of whom I knew nothing... and it turns out Doctorow’s invented history is actually the optimistic version of the story. Go figure.

Doctorow’s story can pass for truth because not too much is actually known about the reclusive brothers. In the fictionalized story, Homer’s blindness and Langley’s insanity become metaphorical walls between them and the world, a complement their literal walls. In reality, Homer (actually the older of the two in real life) became blind in his forties, and Langley moved in to care for him. Their parents didn’t die young, they didn’t host tea dances and jazz music sessions or put up their house like a hostel to young hippies. They didn’t even live to see the sixties and they never let anyone in anyway. Homer and Langley—the real Homer and Langley—died in 1947, the former of starvation and heart disease, the latter of asphyxiation, smothered by his own hoarded objects. Their deaths were probably painful and terrifying and they were alone, but together in the same house.

So at least Doctorow got that part right.

I don’t blame him for trying to make things seem sunnier. In the author’s version of things, Homer and Langley lived exuberant lives that intertwined with many unforgettable characters. It’s nice to think they experienced life from behind those walls. The more likely reality—that the Collyer brothers were hermits of their own design, afraid and resentful of the outside world all the way to their tragic ends—is a much less interesting story. If I had known the details of their true demise, I probably wouldn’t have resented Doctorow’s ending so much, as it mirrored the truth.

Still, when you take as many liberties as Doctorow has, you might as well fabricate a happy ending as well. Maybe Jacqueline did come back for Homer after all... Just maybe...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bad Moon Rising

by Rob Thurman
p. 2007

Word of warning: this review is pretty much 50% spoilers, more for the purposes of discussing if you've already read the book than for pre-reading reviews. Therefore I have not spoiler-barred anything here. If you want a more spoiler-free version, check out my review of Nightlife.

Fresh on the heels of Nightlife, I dove right into its immediate sequel, Moonshine, which takes place some weeks after its predecessor. Cal and Niko have moved on from the Auphe business and are now working as supernatural pest control, essentially supernatural guns for hire. The horrors of the trade are the least of their worries though, when they take a job from the werewolf underworld and Cal’s psychic not-quite-paramour, George, is abducted.

The plot of Moonshine is much more twisty and convoluted than Nightlife, as there are a lot more players involved in the game. It is certainly not short on action, as the book is just a series of encounters with various deadly creatures, some directly involved in the main plot, some not so much.

I’ll speak briefly about the Auphe first. The start of the book gives you the impression that they have been wiped out and no longer pose a threat. Of course, we find out halfway through that this is not true, when a surviving Auphe steps in to derail Cal’s rescue attempts. I actually think it might have been cool if Cal and Niko actually had definitively defeated the Auphe at the end of Nightlife; it would have been unexpected, to say the least, but Moonshine makes it clear that the Auphe are here to stay and will remain the primary protagonists of the series, though for now their efforts seem to be afforded more towards personally fucking up Cal’s life than they are towards world domination. The important thing to learn from the reappearance of the Auphe, though, is that Cal seems to have picked up some of their habits—not so much with the bad ones, like murder and destruction, but the ambiguous ones, like opening portals to travel through. It’s a neat little superpower that will make things quite interesting if Cal A) learns to control it and B) stops agonizing over his Auphe genes and just accepts it as a bonus.

Given Cal’s general attitude, the latter seems unlikely to happen, but the former is a distinct possibility. Indeed, Cal spends just a little bit too much of this book torturing himself over his demonic half and it gets a bit tedious, especially when it’s obvious that it’s being used a plot device to keep him and George apart. I would like to see Cal allow himself to be happy for once. Given the twist at the end of Moonshine (that George was targeted because of who she was, not because of Cal, and it was Cal’s presence in her life that saved her), I had hoped for an opening between the two adorable kids, but the Auphe’s personal mission to destroy Cal’s happiness had to rear its ugly head and make him turn the girl away at the door. This is literally the last scene in Moonshine, ending a bit abruptly and on a sour note. I almost hope the relationship is not revisited in every book, but that will only happen if George leaves town. I’m not entirely against this; as I’d mentioned before, I find George likeable, but admittedly dull and—after her hands off approach to her own fate, demonstrated in this novel—a little frustrating, to be perfectly honest. I’m not sure I’m interested in Cal getting involved with a partner who won’t learn to protect herself, especially when she knows how much evil is out there in her own proverbial backyard.

What little Goodfellow we had in Moonshine was still gold. I had been mostly indifferent to the puck my first time around, but I’m liking him a lot more at a second glance. He’s clearly a character with a lot of history, with a lot to be chipped away, and I’m looking forward to diving deeper into that in the future novels. Goodfellow’s backstory must not only be extensive and layered, but there’s plenty of room there for twists and turns, considering he’s literally been around since the dawn of humanity. His ability to adapt to any culture and still be himself interjects a lot of fun into the otherwise angst-ridden adventures of Cal and Niko. There is a Goodfellow-related thread left open in Moonshine revolving around a mysterious attack with a crossbow at the start of the novel, evidence that some of Thurman’s subplots will likely span multiple novels. This is kind of refreshing in retrospect, but when I was reading the books the first time around, it was highly frustrating. It’s easy to forget everything that happened when you have yearlong intervals between books, the main reason I allowed myself to fall so drastically behind.

Moonshine gives us a much wider look at the Cal Leandros universe, introducing us to plenty of creepy crawlies, complete with Thurman’s vivid descriptions. She has set up a New York rich with seedy underbelly possibilities and she doesn’t skimp on the brutality. The novel opens with a brutalized little girl, dead by the hands of one of these said creepy crawlies (and perhaps setting up a parallel for the later abduction of George, an innocent ‘girl’ in her own right), and it doesn’t spare us the raw hurt of the murder. It’s sad, no doubt, but Thurman affords the right amount of solemnity to the tragic death. If there’s one thing Thurman has nailed, it is the raw emotion of her characters, which she undoubtedly knows like the back of her hand.