Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

Review:

Reservation Blues - Sherman Alexie

This is my first Alexie and not my last. I’m struggling with what to say about it and how because somehow this not-huge novel feels like it’s packed in everything about Indian (as they refer to themselves) culture with its focus on a particular reservation and a rock band’s steep rise and fall. It does so with deadpan humor and a mix of the fantastic and real that calls to mind magical realism but is distinctive. It’s necessarily sad yet not depressing–there’s the humor, and there’s wonder and hope. There’s not an insignificant or uncharismatic character in the book. I feel like I’ve taken a long, strange trip with them and wish them well.

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Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Review:

The Book of Dahlia - Elisa Albert

Dahlia Finger is kind of an asshole. She’s 29 and spends her days sprawled out on her couch, smoking weed and watching movies, funded by her well-off father. One night she has a seizure and learns that she has a brain tumor. Though no one will actually say it, she doesn’t have long to live.

This is not one of those novels of illness where there’s redemption ahead or that’s supposed to make you hopeful and grateful for life (beyond not having a brain tumor). For that reason, I appreciated and responded to it. Unlike all the books on cancer Dahlia and her parents buy in bulk that say “you can beat this thing” if only you have the right attitude, in effect making you responsible (and to blame) for your own illness, The Book of Dahlia illustrates how we as a culture fail to deal with mortality. Though it’s not addressed specifically in the novel, I personally wonder how much that American idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is at play, which easily translates into victim-blaming when one can’t.

One of the platitudes often given regarding illness and healing is that a sufferer must let go of old resentments and anger, that these can make or keep one sick. As Dahlia considers and recounts her past, it’s clear she has almost nothing but resentments, from a mother who essentially abandoned her family to the older brother, once close, who took out his own pain on her in the cruelest ways. Throughout her life she’s plainly asked for help and been ignored. Maybe it says something about me that I couldn’t blame her for her stubbornness in forgiving and forgetting. It feels like the only way she’s able to have any agency during her illness.

If this sounds grim, it’s not, or not only! Dahlia’s voice is often funny, enough to make me laugh out loud while reading. Her humor may be bitter, but that suits me fine. At the end of the book there was a reading group guide that asked more than one question about whether one is able to sympathize with her; I absolutely could. I often like female characters in popular culture that others find abrasive, though I often wonder how much it’s about gender.

The toughest and most affecting aspect of this book was the relationship between Dahlia and her older brother. As a younger sister myself, I’m always interested in and more sensitive to depictions of that dynamic. It broke my heart to read about the turn their relationship takes, how long Dahlia holds out and has faith in him, even insulting herself to get ahead of his insulting her. I both wanted and did not want Dahlia to forgive him. It made me want to call my own brother and thank him for not being a dick!

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The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Review:

Await Your Reply - Dan Chaon

Await Your Reply is ultimately a tragic story featuring characters who are lost or mentally ill and either want a new start or can’t let go of the past. However, I found it hard to sympathize with the three characters whose perspectives the novel shifts between in alternating chapters. As a result I rushed through my reading mostly to finish the book and see how these seemingly unconnected characters were, in fact, connected. It’s a story of identity, how it is mutable but perhaps can become its own trap, even when that identity is traded in for a new one.

I’m surprised I purchased this book since it features one of my greatest squicks (as we say in fandom): a teacher-student romantic relationship. The recently graduated student, Lucy, is one of the characters whose point of view is narrated. Though she’s lost her parents, at first it seems this is not a great loss to her. She also disparages her older, less ambitious sister. This made Lucy and her rash decision to run off with her AP History teacher unsympathetic for me. She’s bright academically, but stupid and naive when it comes to everything else. She almost immediately begins to feel uneasy about the promises her older boyfriend made once they arrive at their temporary destination, but she sticks around.

Similarly, Ryan, a college student, leaves school and his family behind once he learns the truth about his parentage. He hadn’t been doing well in school and wasted the money meant for tuition. He takes off with a guy he’s just met and becomes involved in illegal money-moving and identity fraud schemes, though he barely understands what he’s doing and why. He doesn’t seem that troubled knowing that his family is looking for him. So, he’s another character I found I couldn’t care about.

The third character, Miles, I found the most sympathetic. He’s been on the trail of his schizophrenic twin brother, Hayden, ever since the latter disappeared years before. Miles disrupts his own life (or barely develops one) to chase his twin and feeds on occasional communications from him. He gives Hayden the benefit of the doubt, despite the warnings of others and evidence to the contrary. Is he big-hearted or a fool?

I won’t spoil how the three characters’ stories connect, but despite some surprises, the mystery of that connection wasn’t enough for me to overcome my issues with the characters.

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Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Review:

Wolf in White Van - John Darnielle

I’ve waited a couple days to write this review because this book puzzled me, and I wondered if it was the author’s fault or mine. It’s silly to assign blame when one doesn’t like a book; I suppose this one just wasn’t for me, and I wish every book was.

On the surface, and based on the sample, this book seemed very much “me.” The protagonist runs a small, one-person, mail-order game company. His most popular game, Trace Italian, a text-based RPG, brought to mind both my own (brief) history as a D&D player, as well as the epic adventure of Ready Player One. The game here functions as a refuge for its creator–I was fascinated by the fact that no one has ever made it to the Trace Italian, or fortress that would provide safety in a post-apocalyptic Midwestern U.S., nor is anyone likely to–borne of months spent in the hospital after a mysterious “accident.” The game also embodies what I understand to be the book’s major theme: how the decisions we make may have no real explanation or cannot be anticipated, including their consequences. For example, Sean, the protagonist, cannot anticipate how two young players will treat the game as too real, leading to one spoke of the plot, or how another player will make a choice I imagine Sean envies.

The book is structured so that its major plot points are only slowly revealed as you go; for example, about a quarter of the way through, the reader learns what exactly happened with the two young players that ended up embroiling Sean in a lawsuit. It isn’t until the final pages of the book that one learns what happened the night of Sean’s “accident,” though why is much more complicated. In this way the structure is closer to that of a mystery…except it’s not a mystery novel. It made me feel manipulated; while all storytelling is manipulation, in a way, this sort of teasing of what you’re even reading about frustrates me. I tried to imagine the book structured differently and admit it would be a completely different novel. I don’t have an answer as to what I want and can only conclude, again, that this is not a book for me.

As I read, I anticipated the ending accurately but hoped it might somehow still satisfy by then; it didn’t. A book can be about roads we do and don’t take, how our choices don’t always have rational (or even irrational) reasons, but it still has to work as a story rather than shrug its shoulders. It strikes me that I might have loved this book as a short story, where less of a build-up would lead to less frustration.

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Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

Deliverance, by James Dickey

Review:

Deliverance (Modern Library 100 Best Novels) - James Dickey

The film version of Deliverance is known for “that scene,” the one where Bobby, one of four city men traversing a wild river in Georgia, is raped by a “hillbilly.” The scene is a bit different in the book–there’s no “Squeal like a pig!” moment–but essentially the same. Before I even saw the film, I knew about that scene. Men as victims of rape (outside of prison as a context) in stories shock us; women as victims are so common, often serving as the impetus for a male protagonist to seek revenge, or to “develop” a female character, that it’s rare for their victimization to become the talking point of a film or book, unless the scene is especially brutal (e.g. Irreversible) or unique (e.g. that turkey baster in Don’t Breathe).

I mention this because I came to Deliverance as a reader who is now rarely interested in books with white masculinity as their subject. Its spot on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century likely put it on my radar, and when I read a sample I was dazzled by its language. Dickey’s prose is the best thing about the novel, for a reader like me. He has a way of describing moments of consciousness or states of being that is unlike anything else I’ve read. It carried me through the story, even as the book became what I feared it might. In essence, it’s about using and relying on one’s physical and mental resources as a man to make it through a dire situation.

The leader of this river expedition is Lewis, the most capable and masculine “man’s man” of the foursome. He’s what we would today call a survivalist; he has faith in himself and his body, first and foremost, and wants to be prepared for anything. There’s Drew, the sensible, amateur musician, and Bobby, the smartass who’s the least helpful on the river. The protagonist and narrator is Ed, Lewis’s best friend. Ed is mildly dissatisfied with his work (in advertising) and goes back and forth about wanting to take part in the river trip. When Lewis is badly injured and another member of their party killed by the surviving local man who participated in the rape (Lewis killed the other), it’s up to Ed to get them out of there alive. He does, though injured and obliged to murder (or kill in self-defense, depending on your perspective). The three survivors lie about what happened, concerned they won’t be believed by local law enforcement. This experience will clearly haunt them always.

What troubles me is the way Bobby is characterized, especially after the rape. When reading, especially a violent and potentially offensive book like this, I try to separate characters’ actions and attitudes from the author’s. Immediately after the rapist is killed by Lewis, Ed thinks to himself that he doesn’t want to touch or be around Bobby. This is a moment where you can distinguish between character and author. But Bobby is elsewhere characterized as weak by the author; his ineptitude makes him a hazard to his friends more than a help as they traverse the river and try to escape the situation. Bobby is, in effect, the least masculine and feminized. Drew had his sense of morality going for him; what does Bobby have except (useless) humor?

The few women in the book are wives or objects of a desirous male gaze. Ed has sex with his wife the morning he leaves for the trip, and when he returns, thinks he hasn’t appreciated her enough. Drew’s widow is angry and predictably points out how useless a death he suffered, adventuring on a river. Throughout the story, Ed thinks of the model who posed topless (back to the camera) and held her breast in a roomful of men, a gold tint in one eye. The women seem there to help define the men’s masculinity.

Deliverance is tightly constructed, the type of book with symbolism to pore through, ready for a book group or class discussion. I’ve mentioned its stellar language and also gasped at several points. I can certainly understand its presence on the Modern Library’s list, even as I struggle with some elements.

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Deliverance, by James Dickey

Black Wave, Michelle Tea

Review:

Black Wave - Michelle Tea

The more I read (and watch movies and TV), the more I value encountering something unlike anything else I ever have before. Black Wave, by Michelle Tea, immersed me in a world new to me in several ways.

Though there are occasionally individual queer characters in the books I read, I haven’t read much queer lit where a larger community is represented, especially queer women. Black Wave is set in San Francisco in the 90s at the start, an alternative past where gentrification has strangled most of the culture(s) from the city. In addition, the world appears to be ending due to advanced climate change: it’s dangerous to be out in the sun even incidentally, the ocean is a trash wave, many animals are extinct, and invasive species have overtaken the dying native flora. In other words, the environment’s death mirrors a cultural and, as is soon apparent, a personal one.

The protagonist, Michelle (like the author), is in her later twenties, and is the kind of addict who tells herself she’s not because she doesn’t shoot heroin but snorts it and is able to keep her job at a bookstore. She falls in love (or becomes infatuated) easily and hooks up with many of the women who come into her orbit, despite being in a “steady” relationship with a partner more stable than she is. At one point the point of view shifts from Michelle’s to her girlfriend’s, who thinks she’s a sociopath.

That feels pretty accurate, but one of the amazing things about Black Wave is that despite Michelle’s objectively unlikable character, I still felt very much invested in her. In part this is due to the humor and energy of the writing. For example:

Michelle seemed more like some sort of compulsively rutting land mammal, a chimera of dog in heat and black widow, a sex fiend that kills its mate. Or else she was merely a sociopath. She was like the android from Blade Runner who didn’t know it was bad to torture a tortoise. She had flipped [her girlfriend] Andy onto her belly in the Armageddon sun and left her there, fins flapping.

I may also personally respond to Michelle because she’s a writer, one who’s even published and had a sort of local fame. Around the midpoint of the book when she moves to L.A., the narrative is deconstructed as she attempts to write a new book. It becomes clear that not everything we’ve read so far is as it happened. Another aspect I liked is that somehow this sudden shift doesn’t feel like a trick as can happen in many modernist and post-modernist writing and metafiction. How and why I don’t know, but after some minor readjustment on my part as a reader, I was still invested.

I’ve often noted what a structure fanatic I am, and the last major selling point of Black Wave is the way it beautifully spins out in the last third.

Tangents were Michelle’s favorite part of writing, each one a declaration of agency: I know I was going over there but now I’m going over here, don’t be so uptight about it, just come along. A tangent was a fuckup, a teenage runaway. It was a road trip with a full tank of gas. You can’t get lost if you don’t have anywhere to be. This was writing for Michelle: rule free, glorious, sprawling.

As the world ends, people begin dreaming vividly and lucidly about others who exist in the real world, all over the world. They’re dreams of connection and love where identity is fluid, and some begin living in them, like Michelle’s bosses at the bookstore who hand over the business to her. So the world ends, but somehow Michelle’s in a good place, and so was I.

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Black Wave, Michelle Tea

Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet

Review:

Sweet Lamb of Heaven: A Novel - Lydia Millet

Hm. Hmmm. This is a difficult book to write about as it defies easy genre placement. It has notes of thriller, horror, SF/speculative fiction, and philosophy. I chose to shelve it under “literary fiction” because I don’t see a conflict between the literary and genre elements.

Judging by the three-star average rating, most will either love or be confounded by and hate this novel. It took some warming up for me, and I have other quibbles about characterization and writing style. But when I finished the book, I wanted to jump back in and discuss it.

It’s a novel of big (and politically relevant) ideas wrapped in a domestic thriller. The story centers on a mom and her young daughter. The mother, Anna, hears a voice. Not voices, one voice, and much of the novel’s first quarter or third is spent characterizing this voice–what it is and isn’t, if not why it is at all. Then, the voice stops. Anna is relieved but still puzzled. More importantly, she has to get away from her husband, who is revealing himself to be a sociopath. She sets out on her own with her daughter and shacks up at a motel in New England. Her husband doesn’t care until he decides to run for a government office. He wants his estranged wife and kid around as political props. Anna resists but is threatened.

Interspersed with events are bits of research Anna has done on the voice–on language and communication across species, flora and fauna, on God and mental health, community and self-hood. She’s found a small community at the isolated motel, and they contribute to her understanding. The closer she comes to making sense of things, the more danger she’s in until matters reach a breaking point, not felt until she realizes just how much she’s been manipulated.

Millet is posing some big questions and making assertions that ring especially true in our new extreme-right and digital environments. I haven’t yet sorted through all the implications of the story, but I’m happy for the challenge.

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Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet