I’ve got lots of new books to tell you about, and in order to stop falling so far behind on these monthly notices I’m trying out a new approach today: I’m going to describe my first encounter with each book, and then I’ll let you know whether I plan to continue reading each one or not (and why).
Like Son by Felicia Luna Lemus
A sensitive Chicano transvestite in Los Angeles confronts his/her father, and the results are surprisingly affecting and universal. Felicia Luna Lemus’s friendly, unassuming style reminds me of Sara Pritchard, and I like the way she weaves the narrator’s constant anxiety about his gender uncertainty into every single moment he spends with his oblivious and near-blind father (the title Like Son is itself a play on the gender/parental-relationship theme, since this is the story of a son whose father thinks he is a daughter).
I like Lemus’s main character Frank best when his controlled voice becomes slightly unhinged:
My birthday cake was a disaster. Ingredients dusted the kitchen counter and floor. I ended up doing most of the work. And then the batter wouldn’t bake properly. it stayed raw in the middle. I blew out my candle with a wish that my dad, that we, wouldn’t have to know more suffering.
Continue or not? Hell yeah, I’ll keep reading this book.
Right Livelihoods by Rick Moody
Our old friend “the unreliable narrator” shows up on the reader’s beachfront loggia in the opening novella in Rick Moody’s new collection. This particular unreliable narrator is a sly aging American in a nasty mood, filled with contempt for the social scene around the wealthy and fashionable Atlantic Coast island he once proudly called home, newly drunk after a presumed long bout with recovery from alcohol addiction, possibly losing touch with reality. He wields his sarcastic rage with Shakespearean grandeur towards anybody who interrupts his dreamy drunken thoughts, like the homeowner who finds him sleeping on her back porch and gets this blast of passive aggression:
“Dr. Van Deusen,” she said. The chain remained on the door, though as everyone knows, we have effectively deprived the criminal element of any foothold in my town. The criminal element cannot afford the real estate prices, nor can they bother with the tedious ferry ride.
“Ma’am,” I said, waiting for her name to come back to me, “it’s a beautiful morning, and I was just thinking about a swim. The texture of sea salt and sun on the skin, well, it does build character.”
Moody packs a lot — an imagined terrorist plot, a strange book, a gentle and redeeming relationship with a mentally handicapped son — into this ironic narrative, and I enjoy the rising mood of psychological treachery and unknown menace. Just as Moody’s early The Ice Storm presented a sordid echo of John Updike’s novels of suburban wife-swapping (Couples, Marry Me), this novella evokes John Cheever’s The Swimmer as well as several of John O’Hara’s juicy tales of anomie in rich neighborhoods (Appointment in Samarra, etc.). A powerful performance to kick off a promising collection.
Continue or not? I liked the first novella in this collection, but a Moody tour de force can leave you exhausted, so I’m going to take a break before taking on novellas two and three. They’ll be there when I get back.
I have mixed feelings about “off-the-grid” author John Twelve Hawks. Some readers are put off by the heavy-handed gimmick — a writer who allegedly has no intercourse with society, save with a few publishing professionals who receive his books — and while I agree that there’s something far-fetched here, I am also fascinated by the rebellion against the insidious evil of modern-day bureaucracy that the concept represents, and it’s also a fact that one of my favorite books is similarly about life off the grid.
The John Twelve Hawks series began with The Traveler, which I haven’t read, so I was already at a disadvantage diving into this book. It starts off quickly enough, setting up a few easily recognizable totalitarian villians and heroic rebels, but I feel put off by a rather conventional and purplish narrative tone. Here’s just one for-instance: shouldn’t a writer who lives a blessed life away from society be able to come up with a more original title than The Dark River? Even J. K. Rowling comes up with better titles than that. This book offers clear prose and a competent story, but I wish for greater originality in the plotting, the characterizations and the narrative style than I found in the first twenty pages.
I also think that John Twelve Hawks should marry J. T. Leroy just to find out what their love child would look like.
Continue or not? Sorry, Hawks, no, but if the apocalypse comes I may seek you out to be my friend.
Space Savers and Other Stories by Bill Ectric
I’ve been watching Bill Ectric (a frequent LitKicks contributor) grow and improve as a writer and small publisher, and it’s been a real pleasure to watch. His new short story collection Space Savers is the best showcase so far of Ectric’s gift for unhinged situations and charming characters who seem to be constantly inventing their own crazed dramas to counter the boredom of normal life. The title story seems to have been inspired by old episodes of the Twilight Zone, but the dialogue is funnier:
“So”, I asked, “However many dimensions exist, time is the last one?”
Agee said, “Pops, tell him why we can only see three dimensions.”
“Ahhh,” said Pops. “That’s where string theory comes in. The study of quantum physics suggests that all these dimensions fold back on themselves. They’re invisible to us!”
“That sounds crazy,” I said.
“He didn’t make this stuff up,” said Agee. “There are mathematical formulas that back it up. There is an invisible world. Of course, I knew that from reading my Bible. Pops here had to get it from the Discovery Channel.”
“Discovery Channel, my ass,” said Pops. “I worked on the particle accelerator in Switzerland. If anything, the Discovery Channel learned it from me!”
Long ago I read Bill Ectric’s first book, Time Adjusters, and was forced to criticize the terribly pedestrian cover design. I’m happy to report that Space Savers is a huge improvement. Still, I can’t agree with the insertion of a “Special Guest Author” named Bradley Mason Hamlin who shows up in the middle of this book to provide several poems and short prose pieces. I like Hamlin’s work, but you can’t just “bring a friend along” when you’re writing a book. I guess this odd structural choice wins Ectric some postmodernist points, but I am still waiting for the book where this emerging author completely hits his sweet spot, and yielding space to a guest writer is not going to bring the main writer here any closer to that goal.
Continue or not? Yes — it’s a fun and breezy read.
The Atheist’s Bible by Joan Konner
Editor Joan Konner wants to inspire and embolden atheists with this book of quotations grouped into sections like “The Gospel”, “The Tao of Disbelief”, “Book of Bertrand (Russell)”. It’s an attractiv
e assemblage, but I don’t think it earns the title. A book of short quotations is no bible, and the lack of substantive pieces leaves the book feeling much more intellectually lightweight than an “atheist bible” ought to be.
The chapter titles are the best part, but the actual selected quotes in each chapter don’t work together to form a whole. Throw a bunch of one-liners by Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Hitchens, Albert Camus, Epicurus, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa and Gene Roddenberry into a single chapter and what do you have? A bunch of one-liners, nothing more, because the individuals quoted have absolutely nothing in common. Also, some of the notable names that show up here, like Fyodor Dostoevsky, were anything but atheists. If this book contained longer and more substantial arguments (and less “cute” entries by the likes of Homer Simpson) it might approach the promise inherent in the title.
The book’s opening quote also loses me, because it’s by John Stuart Mill:
The world would be astonished it if knew how great a proportion of its brightest ornaments — of those most distinguished even in populare stimation for wisdom and virtue — are complete skeptics in religion.
Which only makes me want to quip that John Stuart Mill lived in the mid-19th century, which was about the last time atheism could be called a groundbreaking new idea.
Continue or not? No.
That’s it for today — several more titles are queued up for either tomorrow or early next week.