Gwendolyn Kiste has a wonderful way with words. In her hands they are beautiful and savage, comforting and terrifying, heart-wrenching and healing.
And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe contains some true gems, tales thick with atmosphere and murky mood. “Evening settles softly on the orchard like black tar dripping from the sky” and later, “the air tastes of nicotine and abandoned dreams.”
These stories are about dysfunctional families, twisted sisters, and haunted mothers and fathers. “The Clawfoot Requiem” is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily,” while “All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray” reads like a nightmarish fairy tale about forgotten princesses.
“My father counts the money each night, pacing circles like a vulture that dines on the carrion of frail dreams.”
“Little girls don’t earn the right to question the wisdom of men. We can smile and blush and nod our heads, but we can’t tell them no.”
“Girls are always expected to carry an impossible burden in life, like a thousand bushels of apples strapped upon a single back.”
Stories like “The Man in the Ambry”, and “Ten Things To Know About The Ten Questions” showcase Kiste’s powerful prose and unique take on familiar horror tropes, while the title tale, about an old film star brought to life by a fan’s love, is fueled by poetry and romance.
“The way you hold me,” you said, your gaze bright as wildfire, “it’s like I’m falling, but you’ve already caught me.”
And the final line:
“And in the final frame, as the universe fades to black, you’ll save each other.”
Indeed, if only we could all save each other. And Her Smile Will Untether The Universe is a brilliant, lyrical, and moving collection of tales.
Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full Of Ghosts is a beautiful novel, a post-modern tale of demonic possession that leaves you questioning where truth lies in our surreal/unreal world.
Publisher William Morrow sums up A Head Full Of Ghosts:
The lives of the Barretts, a normal suburban New England family, are torn apart when fourteen-year-old Marjorie begins to display signs of acute schizophrenia.
To her parents’ despair, the doctors are unable to stop Marjorie’s descent into madness. As their stable home devolves into a house of horrors, they reluctantly turn to a local Catholic priest for help. Father Wanderly suggests an exorcism; he believes the vulnerable teenager is the victim of demonic possession. He also contacts a production company that is eager to document the Barretts’ plight. With John, Marjorie’s father, out of work for more than a year and the medical bills looming, the family agrees to be filmed, and soon find themselves the unwitting stars of The Possession, a hit reality television show. When events in the Barrett household explode in tragedy, the show and the shocking incidents it captures become the stuff of urban legend.
Fifteen years later, a bestselling writer interviews Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry. As she recalls those long ago events that took place when she was just eight years old, long-buried secrets and painful memories that clash with what was broadcast on television begin to surface—and a mind-bending tale of psychological horror is unleashed, raising vexing questions about memory and reality, science and religion, and the very nature of evil.
Like a brilliant gem, A Head Full Of Ghosts looks different from different angles. Overall, it’s a story about the bonds of sisterhood. It’s also an indictment of our reality TV culture and the toll it takes on reality itself. Viewed from another angle, it’s a straight-up tale of demonic possession packed with genuinely scary moments, suspenseful scenes, and plot twists that leave the reader satisfied—and a bit haunted—after reading.
That’s how good horror stories work and Tremblay has crafted a great one. He freely pulls from pop culture influences—from Richard Scarry books to Lovecraft’s Elder Gods mythos—and deftly weaves them into a plausible framework for his story.
At one point Tremblay describes the older sister’s disheveled appearance:
Her black hair was a dead octopus leaking and sliding off her scalp.
Conjuring images of both Lovecraftian monsters and the pale she-demons that stalk modern Japanese horror, like The Ring.
What kind of demon is at work here? Tremblay implies it’s the vengeful ghost of the Internet itself when Majorie reports:
I was born with all of the universe’s information hidden in the infinite folds and wrinkles of my gray matter, and the information itself decides when it wants to come out and be known.
At times Tremblay implicates the readers as voyeuristic sadists, as we watch “the terrible and systematic torture of a mentally ill teenage girl under the guise of entertainment.” Then he flips the script so you feel like you’re no more than a morsel of food slipping into a monstrous gullet.
“I could eat the world. Merry, pass the sauce, please,” Majorie said, and winked at me.
All the characters are fully realized and accessible. Your heart breaks for the Barrett family as outside forces—perhaps demonic, perhaps dogmatic— tear their lives apart.
Protagonist Ignatius C. Reilly is a bloated buffoon, a man-baby who lives with his mother, has a troubled digestive valve that causes him to burp and fart with great frequency, and possesses one of the most “unique” worldviews you’re likely to find.
Ignatius is loaf completely at ease with his loafishness:
“I dust a bit,” Ignatius told the policeman. “In addition, I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”
Ignatius is like a giant child when he considers his career options and argues with his mother:
I suspect that something like a newspaper route would be rather agreeable.
“I dare you to come out in that shredded nightgown and get me!” Ignatius answered defiantly and stuck out his massive pink tongue.
Above all, A Confederacy of Dunces is funny. Laugh out loud is an overused phrase, but COD will make you LOL for realz, yo. The situations are so absurd, the characters so odd, and the dialogue veers between biting satire punctuated by unexpected blasts of pee-your-pants profanity.
“Go dangle your withered parts over the toilet!” Ignatius screamed savagely. Miss Trixie shuffled away.
No mater what the problem, Ignatius always finds a way to blame others.
“Employers sense in me a denial of their values.” He rolled over onto his back. “They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.
You must realize the fear and hatred which my weltanschauung instills in people.
He twisted his face into a mask of suffering. There was no use fighting Fortuna until the cycle was over. “You realize, of course, that this is all your fault.
“You’re full of bullshit.”
“I? The incident is sociologically valid. The blame rests upon our society.”
Sometimes COD goes for screwball comedy and slapstick. Taken as a whole, COD is the mother of all farces.
When he’s not avoiding work or fighting with his mother, Ignatius plots against Myrna, a radical student he once attended classes with. The romantic ending of COD is anticipated but still manages to be unexpectedly satisfying.
Dr. Talc idly wondered if they (Iggy and Myrna) had married each other. Each certainly deserved the other.
Through Myrna’s letters we see she has true insight into Ignatius’ personality:
This “automobile accident” is a new crutch to help you make excuses for your meaningless, impotent existence.
A good, explosive orgasm would cleanse your being and bring you out of the shadows.
Great Oedipus bonds are encircling your brain and destroying you
Ignatius, a very bad crack-up is on the way. You must do something. Even volunteer work at a hospital would snap you out of your apathy,
The valve closes because it thinks it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.
Behind his absurdity, Ignatius is sad and lonely, a sorrow that stems from his isolationism:
We both exist outside the inner realm of American society. Myrna was, you see, terribly engaged in her society; I, on the other hand, older and wiser, was terribly dis-engaged.
I really have had little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.
I don’t dance. I never dance. I have never danced in my life.
COD is also a love letter to Toole’s native New Orleans:
Patrolman Mancuso inhaled the moldy scent of the oaks and thought, in a romantic aside, that St. Charles Avenue must be the loveliest place in the world.
New Orleans is, on the other hand, a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive. At least its climate is mild.
The balconies of the old buildings hung over my head like dark branches in an allegorical forest of evil.
I won’t get into the tragic personal history of author John Kenndy Toole. The story behind his career and the publication of COD is itself an impossible tale of heartbreaking genius. But the toxic mother-son relationship at the heart of this novel certainly is rife with autobiographical elements.
Ms. Reilly laments Ignatius’ weak work ethic.
“My heart’s broke.”
“Ain’t he writing something?”
“Some foolishness nobody never gonna feel like reading.”
Fortunately, the real-life Thelma Toole felt differently about her son’s work.
The hero saves the day simply by forgetting to act. He agrees to let his mind rot away (perhaps the most terrifying fate of all) while his witchy woman makes off with their newborn grandchild.
That’s the happiest ending possible in this twisted tale that combines the legend of Rumplestilskin, Ira Levin’s secret satanic societies, and Lovecraft’s cosmic horror mythos.
Laird Barron is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. His stuff is way out there, there’s a palpable sense of the strange in his prose, and he uses cools words like sybarites and decorticate.
Protagonist Don Miller is the last to learn he’s a pawn in an ancient game. His wife is a witch hell-bent on double-crossing a race of demons that long to suck humanity dry and wipe the Earth clean.
Every smart husband knows when to back off, and Miller has learned not to pry into his wife’s affairs or ask too many questions.
She’d given him a long, wintry look, the coldest he’d ever received prior or since. Then she said, Leave a girl her secrets, Don.
Miller willfully turns a blind eye, and maybe that’s the secret to their successful marriage. That, and the long absences Don and Michelle take from one another. A nosey federal agent points out what Miller refuses to see about himself:
I’m guessing you’re exactly the rube she needs to maintain her cover as a cute little lady scientist. Who’d suspect her of anything with Gomer Pyle hanging around?
The Ancient Evil at work here is called Old Leech, and it’s straight outta Stoker, yo.
This was a colossal worm that had swallowed whole villages, cities… A leech of nightmare proportions, a constellation rendered against granite, and it had shat the populations of entire worlds in its slithering wake through the night skies.
There is a lot of weird stuff going on here. Hollow Earth Theory. Toothy, limbless creatures that live inside ancient trees. Sacrificial dolmens, like Stonehenge, in the middle of the Washington State. Vortexes to other dimensions.
The conspiracy is everywhere, as Don learns, and his own daughter is not immune. Don’s turncoat boss gives a glimpse into the vastness of the enemy:
“They worship a deity that ate the fucking dinosaurs, several species of advanced hominids and the Mayans. Opened a gate and slurped them through a funnel.”
And as Old Leech’s human servant puts it:
We venerate the Great Dark, the things that dwell there… Our cult is monolithic with tentacles in every human enterprise throughout history, into prehistory.”
“Ah, like Amway,” Don notes.
Barron’s language is equal parts noir and poetry.
You are a mosquito trapped in the sap of a sundew.
You’re a flea on the belly of a mastodon.
Barron’s writing makes you feel small and frightened, which is all you can ask from good horror fiction.
The Croning can trace its literary roots back to Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. But Leiber’s “classic” novel is dated and quaint (and more than a little paranoid) by today’s standards. The Croning is a more wholly realized tale that digs deeper into the fertile soil of myth and fairy-tale, and employs more believable characters to deliver its message.
Even so, there are amazing and memorable moments in this book, as well as a few genuinely shocking events, including multiple cases of incest (the Buendia family has a proclivity toward incest, as well as a constant fear of birthing a monster baby born with a “pig’s tail”).
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s language is breathtaking and strange:
“He had wept in his mother’s womb and had been born with this eyes open”
Surrealistic fiction means anything can happen, and it often does in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It rains for “four years, eleven months, and two days.” They tie the family patriarch to a tree for decades. There’s a rain of flowers. All this strangeness is taken in stride, which is what makes it so surreal. The overall theme seems to be the Buendia family’s failure to learn from past mistakes.
Family matriarch Urusala notes:
“Every member of the family, without realizing it, repeated the same path every day, the same actions, and almost repeated the same words at the same hour. Only when they deviated from the meticulous routine did they run the risk of losing something.”
The word “solitude” takes on a different meaning each time it appears in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Sometimes it means being alone and/or lonely. Other times solitude is a type of personal obligation or duty that one must endure. Solitude above all seems to be the common thread that runs through the Buendia family, as each member has their own moments of intense personal reflection.
García Márquez mentions “the paradise of shared solitude,” and says of the relationship between Jose Arcadio and Aureliano:
“That drawing closer together of two solitary people of the same blood was far from friendship, but it did allow them both to beaer up better under the unfathomable solitude that separated and united them at the same time.”
There’s undoubtedly a lot of political metaphor here. Marquez’s fictional town of Macondo is a stand-in for Colombia, and I’m sure I missed the geopolitical significance of many of the events in the novel since I’m not familiar with Colombia’s history. Evidently there are a lot of real-life events seen metaphorically in One Hundred Years of Solitude, like the building of a railroad into the secluded mountain regions, the slaughter of striking workers by government soldiers, and the influence of big business on the culture. (The novel’s “American Fruit Company” is a stand-in for the United Fruit Company, an American company whose rapid expansion into Central and South America countries in the early 1900s brought about the term “banana republics.”)
According to our omniscient overlord, Wikipedia, “García Márquez is said to have a gift for blending the everyday with the miraculous, the historical with the fabulous, and psychological realism with surreal flights of fancy.” It’s true (like everything Wiki tells us, right?) but García Márquez makes it hurt with dense language and ponderous pacing.
One Hundred Years of Solitude may be a literary classic, but something got lost in translation for me.
Reading Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates is like slipping into a fever dream. It’s all dark winter mood and brooding atmosphere in this novel.
Bellefleur covers three generations of the Bellefleur family over the course of more than 200 years. Ms. Oates builds this long, sprawling novel with long, sprawling sentences filled with parenthetical asides and a boatload of commas. In its way, each sentence in Bellefleur is like a tiny fairytale waiting to be unwrapped. The result is a finely crafted novel that draws you in and keeps your there.
The Bellefleurs seem blessed and cursed in equally extreme measure. The Bellefleur men have a history of violence, rape, and severe gambling problems.
“The Bellefleur curse, it was sometimes thought, had to do with gambling.”
While Yolande Bellefleur suggests:
“ “The curse on us is that we can’t love right!” She was immediately hushed up. And cautioned never to say such a bizarre thing again, or even to think it.””
The Bellefleurs are not the kind of family you want to live near. They are to be feared, not just because they can buy and sell you with their fortunes, but because they’re mentally unstable and have a taste for revenge. A simple, brutal message is passed on to all Bellefleur children:
“Nothing is quite so profound as revenge, they were told. Nothing quite so exquisite.”
The Bellefleur women hold the real power in the clan. They work behind the scenes to manipulate the men—who quite frankly, can use a guiding hand. Led by the beguiling Leah, (“If any Bellefleur succeeded in this century, it would be Leah”) the Bellefleur women propell this family — and novel — forward.
Are the strange visitors to Bellefleur castle—the great cat Mahalaleel, (“You’re a poor lost thing, like any of us,”) Love the pet spider (…his gloved hands acted as if by instinct, as if, in the dim Bellefleur past, they had killed many a Love, just by holding it fast, gripping it fast, and squeezing…), abused orphan Little Goldie, the troll servant Nightshade—ghosts of family members come back to haunt the manor? What about the murderous monster bird know as the Noir Vulture (one of the coolest, creepiest creatures in all of horror fiction)?
“The baby was lost. As women’s screams lifted from the garden the bird rose higher and higher, with a noisy muscular grace, already jabbing at the helpless prey in its claws— tearing and stabbing at it with its sharp beak— so that pieces of flesh and skeins of blood fell…”
Even though the Bellefleurs themselves don’t seem entirely comfortable in their weird world, they also seem quite content knowing they’ll never leave. (Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle, anybody?) Bellefleur is gothic at its most gothic, (before gothic fiction was taken over by sad emo teens and homoerotic vampires) and Ms. Oates at her literary best.
Personal Note: A high school English teacher (Ms. Savage) recommended this book to me when I was a sophomore, around 1983, three years after Bellefleur was published. She knew I was a Stephen King fan and thought I might appreciate Ms. Oates modern gothic. But I wasn’t ready for Bellefleur as a 16-year-old boy. I bailed out after the first chapter. But I’m glad I revisited this novel two decades later, when I could truly appreciate it. Good call, Ms. Savage.
I was eager to download a copy of Salinger’s classic novel onto my Kindle. I’m a firm backer of the digital publishing revolution, since ebooks let you:
Change the size and style of the text.
Look up word definitions and background info on the spot.
Highlight, makes notes, and export chunks of text.
These features are incredibly helpful when I’m writing book reviews (bobsbookblog.com), and must be a major timesaver for students working on school essays. (Back in my day we had to write out notes and quotes by hand on index cards, whippersnappers!)
But The Catcher in the Rye isn’t available on Kindle. You can’t get it on your Nook or iPad either. J.D. Salinger never allowed any other editions of his novel other than the one published by Little, Brown and Company in 1951. The breakout success of The Catcher in the Rye spooked Salinger, and he retreated to his rural Vermont home after the book’s publication. Salinger produced three additional books, but didn’t publish again after 1961.
Salinger died in 2010, but his estate still closely guards the copyright on his work, and had never allowed any adaptions. Film directors from Elia Kazan to Steven Spielberg have been turned away, and the Salinger Estate still hasn’t sanctioned audiobooks or digital editions.
If you want to read The Catcher in the Rye (or Salinger’s other work) you have to order the same Little, Brown and Company mass market paperback (now in its 98th printing) that’s been kicking around classrooms since forever. It’s got the original 1951 orangey cover art by E. Michael Mitchell — an ink sketch of a carousel horse and the NYC skyline — on both the front and back. Besides the title and “a novel by J.D. Salinger,” there is no other cover text, no sales copy, no About the Author copy, no blurbs from other authors or academics, and no “New York Times bestselling author.” Nothing.
The interior of the book is equally sparse. There is no forward or afterword. No advertisements for other books, no offers to join Little, Brown and Company’s Readers Club. There is no About the Author page here either. The Catcher in the Rye is 214 pages of Holden Caulfield’s inimitably cranky narrative, presented exactly how the author intended, and it’s been this way, unchanged, for nearly fifty years.
Salinger’s over-protectiveness guarantees his work is uniformly consumed. I experienced The Catcher in the Rye the same way, in the same font and format, as nearly everyone else who ever read the book. I dog-eared pages, underlined in pencil, and scribbled notes in the margins, the same way lit students have for decades. Salinger’s format constraints demand it.
According to a new documentary on J.D. Salinger, the late author left specific instructions for five books to be published between 2015 and 2020. I don’t know the Salinger Estate or Little, Brown and Company’s publishing plans, but launching new Salinger titles is an ideal time to bring all the author’s work into the digital realm. Contemporary literature should embrace contemporary formats, and ebooks are here to stay. Salinger’s work needs to be readily available, brought into the digital realm, and forever preserved in binary code.
Culled from his experience writing the screenplay for the film Barfly, Bukowski’s Hollywood rips into the shallowness of show business. The plot twists are so absurd, the characters so vapid and vain, they must be based on real life.
Bukowski’s cynical take on movie audiences (“People became so used to seeing shit on film that they no longer realized it was shit,”) versus novel/poetry readers is insightful (“Almost anything upsets or insults a movie audience, while people who read novels and short stories love to be upset and insulted.”)
The best bits of Hollywood happen when Bukowski looks at the role of the writer in the film business.
“Who ever photographed the writer? Who applauded? … It was damn sure just as well: the writer was where he belonged: in some dark corner, watching.”
Bukowski’s portrayal of Barfly leads Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway as characters Jack Bledsoe and Francine Bower is particularly interesting, especially since he’s depicting a fresh-faced Rourke, when the rollercoaster of Rourke’s career was just cresting the top its first hill.
Like the town it is named after, Bukowski’s Hollywood is fun, funny, droll, and pathetic. There’s a lot of wine drinking, and the love affair between Hank and Sarah — the only two “normal” characters in the novel — is sincere and sweet.
Hollywood doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Ham on Rye, or the laughs of Post Office, but it is still vintage Bukowski, and you can’t go wrong with that. As Hank Chianski notes:
“Maybe writing was a form of bitching. Some just bitched better than others.”
I didn’t read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in high school; we read The Pearl instead — and I don’t remember much about it. I wanted to experience Of Mice and Men for myself, but I didn’t expect to be knocked on my ass by its raw power.
As the father of a son with autism, I identified with George and Lenny’s lopsided relationship, especially George’s caregiver stress. Sometimes it’s hard keeping someone you love from hurting himself or herself … or someone else.
Dear, sweet Lenny — how can you not sympathize with his childlike innocence and eagerness? Everyone in Of Mice and Men is affected by Lenny’s simple-minded focus — he just wants to cuddle with soft, fuzzy rabbits. People let their guard down around Lenny, sharing personal dreams with him. George wants his own piece of land. Candy wants his hand and youth back. Crooks wants a straight back and the same treatment as the white men he works alongside. Even Curly’s slutty wife opens up — she just wants someone to love her; she needs a friend. Lenny lets them know it’s okay to dream; you can live off the fumes of pipe dreams if you have to … and you often do.
Loneliness permeates this novel. There is such longing, such sorrow among these broken misfit characters. Billy Joel says we’re sharing a drink we call loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone, while the late great Charles Bukowski suggests you get so alone sometimes that it all makes sense. We’re all connected on a basic human level, yet we remain mysteries to each other, walled up inside our own heads.
Steinbeck said he wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel. Of Mice and Men is pretty damn close to perfect that way. It’s a lean, mean, dialogue-driven machine. This novel is as socially relevant today as it was when it was published in 1937 — a snapshot of a desperate working class, struggling to make ends meet amidst a shrinking job market.
According to literary scholar Thomas Scarseth, “in true great literature, the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.” Experience Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for yourself, and let the transmutation begin!
This novel doesn’t have the same bare-knuckled emotional wallop of The Road, but it still qualifies as a modern masterpiece.
Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West is an old West cowboy novel, full of strange-yet-authentic language and characters. Like good concrete poetry, McCarthy’s work reflects the world he creates. A long ride across the hot desert, feels like a long, hot ride across the desert. Unfortunately, sometimes trudging through McCarthy’s dense prose can seem like an equally arduous task.
This book has been criticized for being ultra-violent, but the violence just seems extra harsh because it appears so suddenly out of McCarthy’s calm, lazy, sun-bleached landscape.
Judge Holden is unquestionably one of the most brilliantly rendered villains in all of literature. His observation of the world, his uncanny knowledge, and his seeming mastery of all things on earth, make him terrifyingly god-like. It’s The Judge’s world, we just live in it. And not for very long. The Judge makes Chigurh from McCormick’s later work, No Country For Old Men, seem like a pussy cat by comparison.
Blood Meridian is a fascinating, but challenging read, one that stays with you long after its final haunting pages.