I just read: East of Eden

East of EdenI first read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden about ten years ago, and at the time I declared it my favorite book. That was also about the time that I started formulating the first plot to my novel Idyll, and the sibling rivalries, daddy issues, and love triangles in East of Eden were (and still are) big influences on that book.

Upon second reading, I was surprised by how much of the book I’d forgotten in just ten years. In fact, there were only two things I remembered about the book. First, the story involved ‘light’ and ‘dark’ brothers, who are stand-ins for Cain and Abel. Second, the brothers’ mom was a sociopath with a beautiful face and a soul that is 50 shades of cruel, empty blackness.

That’s all I remembered, which means I forgot a hellalot! East of Eden is truly sprawling, and it’s like 4-5 novels rolled into one. It’s like the ‘A Day in the Life’ of novels, or AWOLNATION’s ‘Knights of Shame.’

It’s a grand retelling of the Cain and Abel parable. If there’s one thing you should know about East of Eden, it’s that. And after the black-sheep brother, Cain, kills his favored brother, he leaves his father, Adam, in shame to go live ‘east of the Garden of Eden.’ The Cain and Abel analogies are presented twice, through two generations of brothers in the Trask family: first Adam and Charles, then Aron and Cal. (Get it? A & C initials?)

It’s a semi-fictional history of Steinbeck’s family on his mother’s side. Steinbeck’s maternal grandfather, Samuel Hamilton, plays a major role in the book. He was indeed a real person, but it’s hard to say how much of what is presented about him is true. Some of his sons and daughters meet tragic ends in the book, and it was interesting to think how much of that actually happened—and if it did, how it happened.

It’s a hard-boiled, murder-plot pulp story centered around a sociopathic woman who becomes a madame/dominatrix/extortionist.

It’s a memoir of the Salinas Valley, and a sort of oral history of America following the turn of the twentieth century: the optimistic rootlessness of Californians, the advent of the automobile, and loss of innocence brought on by World War I.

Here’s the things that struck me:

Who knew that such a popular book, written in the 1950s, would deal with such dark issues: abortion, pedophilia, and S&M. And boy, is there a good deal of prostitution.

Who knew that people love to fry chicken in tiny farm houses in the late 1800s. For some reason I only see fried chicken as an invention that came around at the same time as Spam. But one brooding, hermitic Trask brother fries chicken so much that a scum of grease develops on the ceiling of cabin. Gross!

Steinbeck has a lot of disdain for his golden-child, Abel characters. Those ‘light’ brothers are real douches. They are real Luke Skywalker-types, in that they are kind of petulant and have their heads stuck up their asses. The ‘dark’ brothers are the Han Solos of the story. And it’s been well established that Han is cooler. Case in point: When a movie of East of Eden was made in 1955—three years after the release of the book, James Dean played Cal.

Steinbeck is obviously a master, and it’s amazing at how deftly he can get away with flouting that old bit of writing wisdom, ‘Show don’t tell.’ There are many portions of the book where Steinbeck seems to be ‘telling’ for 2 or 3 pages straight. But is language is so lyrical and his insights so engrossing, that it is a beautiful, intimate thing.

This book is still one of the bests, and still one of my favorites.

I just read: The Book of Strange New Things

bookofstrangenewthingsThe author, Michel Faber, came up with a cool premise for this book. It’s essentially a ‘first contact’ story. Mankind has made it to a planet called Oasis, and on that planet we’ve found other sentient beings. When it comes to sci-fi, I think it’s an intriguing conceit to flip the usual assumptions, and make the aliens less advanced/more needy than mankind. These aliens are farmers—and that’s about it. Other than their extremely disturbing faces (I won’t spoil Faber’s descriptions by recapping them here), there’s nothing too notable about them. Except for what they want from us.

They want more Jesus.

Enter Peter Leigh, who has been hired as an interstellar missionary by USIC, which is the corporation that has established an HQ on Oasis. USIC wants to keep the natives happy so they won’t disturb their various, nebulous projects on the planet.

I really loved the beginning of this book. Peter is driving to the airport with his wife. It’s nighttime, and the mood is very mysterious and detached. The couple is averse to listening to music in the car, so instead they discuss the aesthetics of electric light. They kvetch over their loved one, Joshua. How will Joshua deal with Peter’s absence? Can Peter stand being away from Joshua for so long? Eventually we learn that Joshua is a house cat. Just when you begin to assume that these two have never consummated their marriage, Peter’s wife instructs him to pull over and they bone in the backseat.

But this air of mystery doesn’t last for more than the first thirty pages or so. We learn more about Peter, who seems like a very well-grounded, open-minded man—if sometimes high-strung. I wouldn’t have expected a devout Christian to be presented so sympathetically in a science fiction book.

Although Peter is presented as a likable guy—at first—his faith and his marriage are sorely tested as he continues his stay on Oasis. Faber treats us to page-after-page of Peter’s wife’s emails (in a tiny font with super wide margins), in which she goes on and on about her life and every dismaying story in the newspaper. There is a point to these long passages. Faber is showing the reader how distance and isolation can so effectively alienate us from the ones we love. Still, I don’t know if we need so many pages to illustrate that fact. As Peter gets more and more involved with his missionary work, he is less and less engaged with what’s going on in his wife’s day-to-day life. (And honestly can you blame him? Aliens!)

There’s another purpose to these long email exchanges: to show how quickly life on Earth is turning to crap. Meanwhile, all of the USIC employees on Oasis go through their days without seeming to care.  One of Peter’s co-workers begins to crack up under the pressure of all of the good-natured ambivalence. (Peter is going a little wackadoo himself.) And Faber begins to build a nice bit of tension. What is the ugly truth behind the aliens’ desire for spiritual deliverance? What’s the dark secret behind the USIC’s workaday purgatory? As the book progressed, I started to expect a final shocking twist, worthy of The Twilight Zone or Lost.

I’ll let you decide for yourself if you think the book delivers on that tension. For me, I’d have to say the last 25% of the book left me cold.

I Just Read: Fourth of July Creek

Fourth_of_July_CreekThe word ‘forewarned’—does it need to exist? Or is it an example of slapping an unnecessary prefix on a verb that was already functioning quite well on its own? In my opinion, the most annoying example of this is ‘preheat.’ I want to write a letter to Marie Calendar and ask her what’s the difference between preheating an oven and just heating it. Then I’ll end the letter with my patented catchphrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t prefix it!”

Anyhoo… Be (fore)warned, if you actively avoid stories about abused or neglected children, then you’ll probably want to steer clear of Fourth of July Creek. In my case, I was intrigued by a review of this book in Entertainment Weekly, and decided to check it out despite the depressing premise. The $1.99 price tag was also a big selling point.

The novel tells the story of a social worker, Pete Snow, who gets wrapped up in seditious happenings in the outskirts of Montana in the early 1980s. The book read like a modern Western to me, which was what I was hoping for. The beautiful descriptions of the Montana landscape, and the cast of brink-of-the-law characters helped to contribute to that feel. And the author, Smith Henderson, occasionally sidles in a stream-consciousness-through-choppy-waters style that made me think of a more narrative version of Cormac McCarthy.

Henderson also employs an interesting style while the narrative follows Pete’s daughter, Rachel. Her story unfolds in as a sort of Q&A that she’s having with herself.

“And does (her mother) keep Rachel home now, say for her to cut class and stay home?
Yes.
And do they watch TV all day and go for long drives and was it like they were always just waiting for Rachel to get old enough so they could be friends and tell each other everything?
That’s what her mother says.
And what is the everything Rachel tells, on the porch in the cooling of the evening?
Nothing. Her mother does all the telling.”

Appropriately unsettling, and there’s something about it that gives off a sort of rebellious teenage rhetorical style (navel-gazing, back-talking). Or is this a rendering of an interview that Rachel’s giving to another social worker, explaining how crappy her parents are?

The main character, Pete, is definitely a crappy parent—and a hard protagonist to root for in the traditional sense. He reminded me of George Clooney’s character in The Descendants. I’ve never read that novel, but during the movie adaptation I kept wanting to yell at his character, “Stop galavanting around Hawaii and help your daughters deal with the fact that their mother is brain-dead!” At least Pete’s flaws are obviously and unsympathetically presented, and Pete suffers and learns from his mistakes.

Overall, Fourth of July Creek is a bleak book, but I’m glad I read it. I think it will probably make my Top 5 reads of the year.

I Just Read: Kushiel’s Dart

kushiels dartThe word ‘phallus.’ Tramp stamps. These are examples of things that people try to use to be sexy, but that just don’t hit the ‘marque.’

Ah-ha! That last bit there was a little “Kushiel’s Dart” pun. You see, in author Jacqueline Carey’s fantasy world, marques are that elaborate, large tattoos that concubines get on their backs to track their progress in the spiritual sex-trade. The story follows one such concubine, who has been blessed by her freaky-deaky deities to be the freaky-deakiest of S&M subs. Sounds like we’re headed for a sword-and-sorcery version of 50 Shades of Grey, right? ‘Christian gets even MORE Medieval.’ Well, for 200 pages you’d be kind of right.

Then the story swerves into court intrigues and international politics, and our horny heroine becomes more of a Renaissance-era CIA officer. She’s gathering intel, delivering messages, and forging alliances. There are still sex scenes, if you can call them that. Most of them briefly mentioned transactions, or they’re out-and-out rapes.

Hmm. How to describe this book. I guess I’d say it’s not for everyone. If you’re a fan of “Lord of the Rings” style treks and sieges, 600 pages of this book will disappoint you. If you’re hoping for an erotic thriller, a different 600 pages of the book will disappoint you. And yet, the book still held my interest. I kept reading through it, all 900 pages.

I guess I was intrigued by the role the heroine plays as the fantasy version of Mata Hari. She doesn’t carry a sword; she doesn’t know any magic spells. Just her wits and her feminine wiles. And I liked the religion that Carey creates, which is based on angels and disciples of a vaguely Christian faith. And I think of all the fantasy books I’ve read, this one probably comes closest to Game of Thrones, in that it weaves together a dozen intricate plots, and warring factions. Most of the characters are morally ambiguous characters. No one’s purely evil, and there’s only a handful of characters purely good. So that’s a great thing that the book has going for it. It looks like one of the ‘Kushiel’ sequels explores a Persian or Turkish setting, so I may check that out as well.

A writing tip that ruined me

This post goes out to anyone who ever felt the stirrings of a panic attack while reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. So many rules, so many words, so many snidely delivered suggestions! Sometimes I’ll take in a writing tip (not necessarily from Strunk and/or White), and the illogical complexity of it will turn me squishy, grammatically paralyzed. In the spirit of kvetching, I thought I’d share one of those paralyzing bits of advice with you.

You’re welcome?

Today’s writing tip that ruined me is the difference between alternate and alternative.

Alternate and alternative are often used as adjectives to mean the same thing: “available as another possibility.” To properly fit this definition, ‘alternate’ is an imperfect alternative. Alternate more properly means ‘every other’ (alternate Saturdays, or alternating Saturdays).

All of that makes pretty good sense, until I start thinking about a term like ‘alternate reality,’ which sounds so much better an ‘alternative reality.’ Or an ‘alternate juror,’ versus an ‘alternative juror.’

Urrgh! Luckily the erroneous synonymity of alternative and alternate is being slowly accepted as a part of our standard English lexicon. Ain’t that cool?

Favorite Books: April & May 2014

hornsHorns by Joe Hill

There are great books leave me thinking, “Wow, that was great. I’ll never be able to write a book like this.” Then there are a few really good books that leave me thinking, “That was really good. If I keep at it, one day I can write a book like that.”

Horns falls into that second category: accessible and inspiring. Horns isn’t perfect, and that’s probably one of the reasons that the book seemed so encouraging and energizing to me. (I don’t imagine I’ll ever be a perfect writer.) The other reason is it’s multiple flashes of brilliance. Hill plants hints and callbacks throughout the book, bringing them together in wholly satisfying ways. A girl to fall in love with and grieve over. A villain who’s repellant and fascinating. A genuinely touching ending. Yeah, this book was REALLY good.

 

blowingmycoverBlowing My Cover by Lindsay Moran

Imagine that Lena Dunham goes through CIA training, works as a case officer for a few years, quits and writes a tell-all. That idea probably either intrigues you or offends you, depending how you feel about Dunham or the sanctity of American clandestine services.

Yes, the author of this memoir often seems shallow, boy-crazy, self-centered, and flaky, especially in light of such a serious undertaking. But I imagine that most CIA officers—along with everyone else—have thoughts like these. Only a very few are brave enough to honestly explore and share these parts of themselves. Moran’s inner struggle with ethics and ennui—and her concise and personalized details of CIA training—had me hooked from beginning to end.

 

calibanswarCaliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

I finished the second book in Corey’s Expanse saga, which is slated to become a TV series on the Syfy network. Once again I enjoyed the smooth prose and a vibrant, crackling emphasis on characterization (which is precious thing among most space opera books).

The plot starts a year after the events of the previous book (Leviathan Wakes), so we’re dealing with familiar characters and similar types of technology. The story drags a bit, and I felt the book was missing a true ‘holy crap!’ moment. By comparison, Leviathan Wakes had three or four incredible set-pieces anchoring its plot.

I did really like the brief introduction to everyday life on Earth. Instead of  overpopulation, the rise of the oceans, or income stratification, the biggest change on Corey’s Earth is society’s segmentation of two classes: the engaged and the apathetic. It’s an interesting way to think of how society may change in the next 100 years.

Best actor in a suppurating role

I’ve always felt some sympathy for the actor Jack Gleeson because he plays such a iconically unsympathetic character. King Joffrey is the most despised, most irredeemable villain in all of the Game of Thrones series—and that is obviously saying something. There’s no reader or viewer that doesn’t want to slap the shit out of that kid. Even Joffrey’s own family members can’t stop slapping him, and he could probably have all of them executed.

Because Gleeson is so good at the role, it’s disconcerting to see outside the context of the show. I feel a little disturbed by photos of him smiling at a premiere party. What’s he smiling about? Is there a prostitute bleeding to death, just off frame? Somebody sweep the area for decapitated heads!

Among the ranks of teenage actors who became (in)famous for playing towheaded terrors, it seems clear to me that Gleeson has already surpassed the kid who played Draco Malfoy. I guess only time will tell if he will become this century’s Billy Zabka.

But let’s put aside the taint of eternal, vicarious hatred that is likely to cling to Gleeson/Joffrey for decades to come—I’m still not sure that Gleeson is the actor who’s career has been most injured by GOT’s casting directors. Consider which of these would be the most insulting:

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headshots_theon

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