100 Sideways Miles


Mom read a review of Andrew Smith’s 100 Sideways Miles in her local newspaper – she is olde tyme – that made the book sound like one of the funniest, most heartwarming novels to come along in a years.  She even clipped the article from the newspaper and mailed it to me ahead of the book shipment.  I wish I had saved that clipping and more than that, I wish I had read the same book the newspaper’s reviewer had read.  That book sounded wonderful.  The one I ended up with just did not click with me.

Finn Easton, the nice-guy teen protagonist of 100 Sideways Miles, suffers from epilepsy due to injuries sustained as a child in a freak accident that also claimed the life of his mother.  Due to Finn’s life-changing accident, the exact nature of which I will not spoil here, he has a unique perspective on life, measuring the passage of time in miles rather than minutes.  I had high hopes for a clever and perhaps enlightening implementation of this idea.  It ended up being a quirky but impotent character trait.  In fact, many aspects of this book felt impotent.  Finn sees the ghosts of two little girls a couple of times during the story, but nothing comes of it.  The ghosts don’t haunt him, they don’t save him from danger, he gains no insight.  What is the purpose of Finn seeing these ghosts?  Did I completely miss the point or is this just another odd thing in his life?

Finn’s best friend, Cade Hernandez, a star athlete and charismatic ladies’ man extraordinaire, almost completely repelled me in the early pages.  He is arrogant, a troublemaker, he drinks, he chews tobacco (people really still do that?!).  Basically, he is the kind of bad influence I would have avoided in high school.  Cade is, however, fiercely loyal to and protective of Finn, especially when Finn is having a seizure.  This quality redeems him and for this, I can forgive him his other faults.  He probably grows up to be a good guy.  Sure he is young, reckless and stupid now, but so was I when I was sixteen.  His brotherly relationship with Finn reminds me of my relationship with one of my own friends.  By the end of the novel, Cade ended up becoming my favorite character and that was a surprise.

A second strong character is transfer student and romantic interest Julia Bishop.  She and Finn latch onto each other early.  Their relationship is one of mutual respect and care and is as awkward and sweet as it needs to be.  Aside from the brotherly relationship between Cade and Finn, the relationship with Julia felt the most authentic and real, if perhaps a bit indulgent of teen male fantasy.

For no reason I could discern, Smith writes a couple of scenes as though they are a script.  It is random and pointless and irritated the heck out of me.  Had the scenes actually involved a stage play, then it might make sense to present the dialogue and action in this way, but these were scenes just like any other.  It is as though Smith grew bored of his own book and decided to switch up the format for a few pages just to be different.  One scene is just a conversation between Finn and his father and after rereading it, I see nothing leading or following the scene that supports its presentation as a stage play.  The second is a conversation between Cade and Finn.  At least this one is preceded by reference to the radio dramas soldiers in World War II listened to followed by “our own blank-screen radio theater played out as something like this”. If the entire reason the scene is written as a radio drama script is because WWII radio dramas were mentioned a sentence earlier, then the reason is as thin and weak as wet toilet paper.  Just write the scene.  If the scene is so weak that it needs to “punched up” by changing the format for no good reason, then cut the scene or rewrite it.

I haven’t been a teenager for twenty years, but I am fairly certain I did not say “Um” as often as Finn Easton does.  Even if I did and even if this is really how teens speak, it was gnash-my-teeth aggravating to have to read “Um” as his response to so many stimuli.  I get it that many of us precede a sentence with “um” or “err” or “ah” as we put our thoughts together but Finn Easton seems to be able to communicate a wide variety of thoughts and emotions by just saying “Um”.  Dad asks about Finn’s day.  “Um”.  Friend makes a joke.  “Um.”  Pretty girl talks to Finn.  “Um.”  (Actually, I completely understand this one.)  Museum attendant is a smart aleck.  “Um.”  Friend expresses concern for Finn.  “Um.”  On one hand, dialogue has to be authentic to be believable.  People have to talk the way people really talk, but an author can take this too far and I have to say Smith went overboard with Finn Easton’s use of “Um”.

On a positive note, I did learn something from 100 Sideways Miles.  The undershirt worn by baseball players, the shirts with the colored sleeves that extend up the shoulder to the collar, is called a raglan.  I did not know that, but now I do thanks to 100 Sideways Miles.

Character relationships are the strong point of 100 Sideways Miles, but they were not strong enough to save the story.  Ultimately, a disappointing book but I see enough talent in Andrew Smith that I am willing to give one of his other novels a chance.  Aforementioned friend recommends Winger so I will try that one with cautious optimism.

As I Lay Dying

Thoughts on William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying

Mom seems to be honing in on the classics for her Mommy & Me book club selections.  When her next pick arrived in my mailbox, I tore open the puffy white postal envelope to reveal William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  The first thing I noticed after the title was that the book had affixed to the upper right corner a golden “Soon to be a Motion Picture” label.  I scowled at the foul defacement of the book cover and immediately went to work on the edge of the label with my fingernail.  Fortunately, it was just a sticker with gentle adhesive and easily removed, leaving no residue.  I detest those labels and will only purchase a book that has one if it is removable.  If the label is printed onto the cover, forget it.  Of course, the worst offense of all is the replacement of the original cover art with the dreaded movie poster.  Ugh.  I wonder if post-film printings of novels like Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist ended up with “Now in Cinemas!” stickers.  Which was the first novel to be defaced by such a label and whose idea was it anyway?  Because it remains common practice, I suspect it results in the sale of books people might not pull off the shelves otherwise, but I’d still like to cinch up my suspenders and wag my cane at that filthy marketing executive anyway.

William Faulkner is one of those classic novelists I had managed to avoid all throughout school and university.  I didn't dodge him intentionally.  I just never wound up in a literature class with him on the syllabus.  Syllabus.  I haven’t used that word in more than a decade.  Remember how exciting it was when a professor handed out the syllabus and you perused it, quaking with excitement to see all of the things you were going to learn over the next few months?

The book, though.  In several alternating points of view, each character narrates their involvement with the Bundren family’s journey to transport their recently deceased mother across the Mississippi countryside via mule-drawn wagon to her desired burial place forty miles away.  That would be an hour-long trip on surface streets in modern times, but this is early 20th-century Mississippi.  Roads are dirt, bridges are rotten wood.  Add to that a furious rainstorm the night before the family sets out and now the roads are mud and the bridges are washed away.  What should have been a two-day trip even in a wagon drags out over more than a week and momma’s not smelling too swell by the end of it.

The Bundren family are different people.  Hill people.  No – not people.  Folk.  These are hill folk of the American South – misunderstood and odd.  You know how when you are driving across the country and you stop for gasoline in a little town off the highway and the people there have teeth the color of candy corn, bathe in streams and seem to speak their own language and when you leave you look in the quivering rear-view mirror and see all of them standing in the road watching you go?

Even with so many characters written in first person, Faulkner managed to create clear voices for each of them.  Being inside some of these people’s heads was disturbing.  Some of them seem normal-ish, if not troubled, and some seem downright nuts.  I had a difficult time deciding whether Vardaman, the youngest boy, was mentally unstable or just a regular kid with fractured attention span who doesn't know how to emotionally handle the demise of his mother.  These fascinating people are what this book is about.  The journey to get momma’s corpse, matter-of-factly referred to as "it", from Point A to Point B is just an excuse for these people to have something to do.  It is the Bundrens and the people they meet along the way that are the focus of As I Lay Dying.  If you want plot-driven narratives, look elsewhere.  This book is an examination of a part of America we modern city dwellers may never see again.  Modern civilization was already spreading into Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County in this novel and the Bundren Family was viewed with wary eyes by those who encounter them.  As I Lay Dying is about the values of these hill folk.  In some cases, their values are all they have, which explains why they cling to them so very much.  For them, it is about what is right and durnit when something is right, you best see it done.

Now, about that “Soon to be a Motion Picture” sticker:  I see this thing is written by, directed by and stars James Franco.  I reckon I might could set down to give it a look-see.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

As the regular readers of this blog (all three of you) may remember, my mother and I started a book club of sorts, the first selection of which was Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club.  When my mother announced her choice for our next read, she told me she feared the choice would turn me off reading altogether.  I reminded her that the point of book clubs is to be exposed to works to which one might not normally choose to read. I assured her that I was completely open-minded and willing to read anything she suggested.  I think I successfully persuaded her because she shipped her selection to me:  Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I am proud to annouce that I finished the book, despite her doubts.  Point in my favor. However, point in her favor, it is the end of March and she shipped the book to me last October.  Well, maybe that is half a point.  Another half-point against me is that the book is just over two hundred pages long.  When we talked in January, after I told her in December that I saw no reason I couldn't finish before the end of the year, she told me she was afraid this would happen.  There was a bit of a told-you-so tone to the statement. I tried my best to convince her that my delay in finishing had nothing to do with the book itself.  There are several reasons (some might call them excuses) it took me six months to read a tiny two hundred page book, but as Paolo Coehlo once said, “Don’t explain. People only hear what they want to hear.”  I was determined to finish.

After some additional delays, I finally managed to shove all distractions aside and spent a weekend finishing the book.  As a matter of fact, I enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Gray.  I tend to struggle with 19th century literature – I still haven’t finished Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, into which I stuck a bookmark over a year ago and haven’t returned – but I found Oscar Wilde generally easy to read provided I was not trying to read in bed after a particularly exhausting day at work, which is all of them.  I found Wilde’s prose beautiful, lyrical, smooth.  Some of his dialogue – especially that of my favorite character, Lord Henry Wotton – is snarky, cynical, critical of the Victorian society in which Oscar Wilde lived and I find it humorous that much of what he said in the book absolutely outraged that society.  So much of what caused the outrage seems innocuous now in this age of greater acceptance in which we live, though I suspect a few of his statements would still upset some segments of the modern population.  One such passage that coaxed from me a bark of laughter followed a description of Dorian Gray’s brief dalliance with religion:

“But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system.”

Oscar Wilde states elsewhere, in a critical tone, that “men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography”, but I strongly believe that statement regarding religion is the author’s personal opinion on the matter, though it is known that Wilde wanted to join the Catholic Church, only succeeding in doing so upon his deathbed.  I suppose one can appreciate the spirituality of religion while still exercising scientific thought.

The major problem I have with the novel is that I find the titular character so unlikable.  Dorian Gray, a victim of his own beauty and the easy life he enjoyed because of it, is completely spoiled.  Adored by all, desired by many, Dorian wants for nothing.  Wilde uses the dialogue descriptor “he cried” so often to identify Dorian as the speaker that I got the impression Dorian was in a constant state of hysterics.  I pictured him with the back of his hand to his forehead, eyes rolled back, swooning this way and that.  Later, he is a dreadful narcissist and later still, he is darn-near sociopathic.  None of these are positive character traits designed to help the reader relate.  Dorian does experience the most dramatic character arc in the story, though, and I was interested to see what would happen to him even if I didn't think very highly of him.

Had I read The Picture of Dorian Gray in a high school literature class, I suspect I would have disliked it.  As an adult, however, I have spent the hours since I finished reading the book organizing my thoughts about it and wanting to read more about it and discuss it with others who have read it.  Fortunately, I am currently taking a road trip to visit my parents - I am in the passenger seat - so I’ll finally get to talk with Mom about it… if she remembers any of it six months later. Driving from Los Angeles to El Paso to visit earns me a bonus point so I win, 2-1.

Black Hills

Thoughts on Dan Simmons's Black Hills

I have previously expressed my favorable opinion of Dan Simmons (here and here ) and with his 2010 novel Black Hills, he reinforces my appreciation of his amazing storytelling ability.  Black Hills tells the non-linear story of Paha Sapa, a Lakota Indian with the extraordinary ability to absorb another person’s memories and see their future simply by touching them.  As though that were not burden enough, he is also a participant in the Battle of the Greasy Grass (you know it better as the Battle of Little Big Horn) as a young boy and in touching the dying body of General George Armstrong Custer, he feels the ghost of Custer enter his body.  Paha Sapa then lives with the ghost of General Custer within him throughout his life, both of them watching as Paha Sapa’s people, culture, and way of life are destroyed by the relentless westward advance of modern civilization.  This is a fascinating, thought-provoking, sometimes heartbreaking story of a man who loses everything, always seeming to take two steps back for every step forward.  I enjoyed seeing this story from Paha Sapa’s perspective throughout several important periods in his life as the ghost of Custer offered the white man’s counter-perspective, usually in humorous fashion.

While there is a hint of the supernatural in this work of fiction, there is a lot of fact here, too.  Let no one say Dan Simmons fails to do proper research before he writes an historical novel.  The bibliography (humbly labeled “Acknowledgments”) is four pages long.  It is staggering to consider how much time Simmons must have spent just reading and researching the works of others before beginning his own project.  It demands respect.  On occasion though, it also gets in the way of the story and this is my one major concern with this book.  During a few rare moments, I felt as though I was reading a history text about Native American life or about the Battle of Little Big Horn or about the sculpting of Mount Rushmore or about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.  It was always interesting information but in some cases, it felt like too much information presented in a dry manner and it slowed the story.

After reading Black Hills, I will view the Mount Rushmore monument, which I have not yet seen in person, in a completely different light now that I know how important the Black Hills region of South Dakota is to the Native American tribes of the area.  It is interesting to think that the monument was carved into that mountain to honor American democracy, but to the native peoples of the region, it is graffiti, a disgraceful defacing of a sacred mountain.

Masterfully interlacing fact with fiction to tell a story of American history from a perspective we rarely see, Dan Simmons has created a wonderful novel and solidified his position on my watch-list.  I truly enjoyed Black Hills and look forward to my next opportunity to read a Dan Simmons book.

The End of Your Life Book Club

Thoughts on Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club

I was standing in the New Releases section of my local Barnes & Noble Booksellers looking for a new book to send to my mother for her birthday.  I had read a favorable review of The End of Your Life Book Club, the reviewer summarizing the book as a memoir about a man and his mother and the books they read together near the end of her life.  My own mother is an avid reader and ingrained within me from an early age a similar appreciation of books. The End of Your Life Book Club sounded like it might be a good gift.  However, after reading the jacket flap and learning that the man's mother was also dying of pancreatic cancer, I closed the book and placed it back on the shelf.  This wasn't just the end of the woman's life.  It was the end too soon.  It sounded too sad for me and certainly too sad to give as a birthday gift.  I bought something else instead and shipped it to my mom.

I called her a few days later after I had received confirmation that the package had been delivered.  Mom and I engaged in the usual mother-son chatter and then I admitted my original intent; that I had meant to send The End of Your Life Book Club to her and we would each read it together, a mother and son reading a book about a mother and son reading books.  I suggested that while I hadn't sent the book that inspired the idea, maybe I could get a copy of the book I did send and we'd read it together.  Mom liked the idea but wanted to read The End of Your Life Book Club instead.  I warned her of the subject matter but she insisted that we read the book that inspired the idea.  So, I ordered two copies and had one shipped to her and other to me.

The book is simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming.  Mary Anne Schwalbe was a tremendously accomplished woman.  In addition to being the mother of three children, she was an educator and traveled to impoverished and war-torn countries to volunteer in refugee camps, caring for women and children.  She was, like my own mother, always reading something and inspired her kids to read.  This love of books and reading gives her and her son something to discuss other than cancer treatments.  Through the books they read, the two of them find strength, peace, and inspiration.  They follow others through their struggles, fictional or non-fictional, and through discussion of these stories, the two find a way to manage their own challenges.

Somehow, through all of the chemotherapy, awful side effects, and bad news from her oncologist, Mary Anne Schwalbe stayed strong.  She had a matter-of-fact outlook on the whole situation.  She was determined to do what she could do and didn't worry about what she could not control.  She seemed almost peaceful about it, or at least that was she appeared to her family.  If she was scared, she did not show it and that impressed me.  It would be so easy for some people to curl up and hide, but she continued to live her life, travel, attend charity events and work toward her goal of getting a library funded and built in Kabul, Afghanistan.  She wasn't dead yet and she didn't want anyone fretting over her or eulogizing her before it was time.  I find that inspirational.

I am not really sure I can say I "enjoyed" the book though I am grateful for the experience and grateful to Will Schwalbe for sharing such a deeply personal story.  I recently had friend die of colon cancer and his family exhibited a similar strength and togetherness shown by the author and his family.  I hope my friend felt as much peace in his final days as the author's mother did in hers.