The travelogue. Ah, the oft maligned travel novel, thrown onto the burn pile with other not-taken-seriously genres like mystery and thriller. Driven to the edges of respected literature, called unimaginative and easy, dropped first from a library’s collection and left to rot on library sale tables.Yet, it seems like everyone wants in the action. Where did this unfair assessment come from? Is it the easily dated subject matter – an ever-changing world that has a hard time looking constant from one year to the next, let alone for the years that pass while a travelogue sits on the shelf? Is it the fact that nearly every travel novel takes on the same subjects – a jaunty and funny brush with weird foreigners, a coming of age on a long-respected trail, etc. etc?Yes. And yes. A lot of travel literature is dated. And even more is boring and redone. I started reading travel lit by hitting the ones that did it best, big names like Bryson, Theroux and Mayle. I latched on and let the genre take me for a ride. Through reading Bill Bryson, I discovered that I wanted to become a self-made writer. Through reading Paul Theroux, I discovered that I wanted to ride across countries and meet people, if only to document their individual intricacies. Through reading Peter Mayle, I wanted to move to France. That’s all. Just move to France and live in his house.Through all of this, I honed my tastes. I figured out the difference between good and bad travel literature. I stopped reading about one person’s trip around England because, well, I’d already exhausted that location through both Bryson and Theroux. And eventually, I stopped reading it all together, feeling the genre tapped out, unable to get excited about anyone else’s trips.So it was with great pleasure that I returned to the genre this month by turning to one of my favorite dead Nobel Prize winning authors – John Steinbeck, and his Travels with Charley.If there was one thing the book renewed, it was the wanderlust feeling of adventure that a travel novel can bring out. I found that old feeling of vicarious living, meeting and getting to know people from around the country right along with the author, as if acting as a resident intern assigned to proof the pages as they are being written.And these pages, older as they might seem, are far from dated. Good travel literature touches upon more than just the sites and scenes – it frames the human condition at the point of travel. This point – the late 50s in the United States, shortly after the Interstates were designed but far before they stretched from coast to coast – is brilliantly illustrated in Steinbeck’s attempt to find the America he thought he had forgotten. After living in New York, sheltered from his people and as far away from native Salinas as possible, he sought out the real American voice.What he found wasn’t exactly what he expected. That voice had become more disjointed, unknowing of the nation as a whole and entirely critical of the country’s direction. The direction didn’t matter – right thinking people were critical of a perceived leftism and vice versa. Steinbeck found a nation that was becoming increasingly partisan and fast-paced, dropping the old roadside stand out of sight while holding alight the big city atmosphere of Interstate travel.Steinbeck stayed off of the Interstates, preferring the hominess of the Routes and State Highways. In this way, he saw firsthand what his nation was doing. And he did so with the ultimate in companions – a conversation starting poodle named Charley, his best friend and constant shadow.The best parts of Travels with Charley are when Steinbeck and Charley interact. Sure, this is a book about travel – about a nation that’s rapidly evolving from Steinbeck’s past, throwing the easy lazy way out the window for the new fast-living – but it’s above all else a book about a man and his dog. Charley is more than just a poodle – he’s a character that, like many of Steinbeck’s characters, is richly described using ordinary terms. You feel an affinity towards these characters without being threatened. There’s simply no work needed to read Steinbeck. It’s all matter-of-fact, beautiful and elegant, simple in a complex way.Well, I’m gushing and writing like a copywriter again, so I know my time must almost be up. I read Travels with Charley on a camping trip, and the slight parallel between Steinbeck’s situation and mine (we were both camping) created a sort of invisible bond. I felt as if I was traveling – even though I was sitting still, alongside the lake, pouring my heart out into the great outdoors, wishing and growing extremely jealous of everything Steinbeck was describing.I was jealous most of all by the idea that, in leaving your station in life, you can learn more about yourself. Not just about the country, or about your era’s society, or the collective voice of your generation, but about your personal space, about your personal era and your personal voice.Travel literature is the ultimate in literary escape. When you think about it – what else is literature supposed to be?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May.Corey’s BoMC is going on an indefinite hiatus since he’s busy with a baby on the way. Thanks for contributing to The Millions, Corey, and congrats!
Which is better?Reading a series slowly, savoring each book by separating it from its ilk, dividing and conquering and drawing the series out over the span of several years, as if reading them real time the way they were released.Or…Devouring a series at once, going from book to book as if the separate entities were truly one bound volume, not allowing the characters to rest but letting them progress, from their early days until their final words.I used to be in the former.Now I’m in the latter.This sudden change of heart is thanks, in most part, to this month’s Book of the Month – John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels. Or, as most know it: Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest.Breaking away from my typical pattern, where I found myself reading one book, then steering away for a while until coming back to the next in the series (see: Roddy Doyle’s Henry books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy), I decided to read all of these books at once. I came to this decision in two parts.First, I had to actually decide to read one of the Rabbit books. I did it in order to see what the big deal was about. So I asked around. I had heard from several people that Rabbit Redux was the best of the four. I found out that the final two books won the Pulitzer. That left three of the four books with a decent pedigree. Then, I thought, “Well, if I was going to read the last three, shouldn’t I start with the first one?” In days, I had created a viable argument for reading each one of the four books.Second, at Common Good Books in St. Paul (Garrison Keillor’s great little basement bookstore), I made a grand discovery. Having never looked for any of these Updike books before, I never realized they had been published together. They had been. It was reportedly the way Updike had meant to have them published after finishing the fourth installment: as Rabbit Angstrom. The collection shed its four names and took the name of its protagonist, the utterly despicable yet strangely endearing man from Brewer, Pennsylvania.With that, I found my mind made up for me. I’d just read all of them.So I did. And here’s what I found.1. Reading a set of books like this keeps everything fresh. Nothing is missed. Vague remembrances to scenes in past books are still top-of-mind, making every allusion memorable. You also start to see patterns more readily. There’s no time taken trying to figure out where a character or an odd turn of phrase, or a symbol or reference to earlier foreshadowing first appeared. You know. You encountered it just a few days prior.2. In completing the set, I discovered I intimately knew everything about the character – more than any character I’ve ever encountered. And I have to believe that, if read apart, I wouldn’t have made all of the connections. I wouldn’t have been able to predict what Rabbit was going to do. It would have been impossible – I’d have spent part of my brain thinking back to whether an event was worth remembering, not processing each flaw, each trait.3. I saw each character grow, amazingly, over a thirty year period, in a way that only a 1,500 page novel can do.The Rabbit books are pretty simple, actually – just the chronicle of one man’s life over thirty years, each book taking place ten years after the one before it. It’s, to use the overused Rabbit cliche, a series about an “Everyman.” It’s the tale of Everyman’s rise from dirt to riches, complete with all of the warts – the infidelities, the misguided choices, death, life, hate, family relations, everything that makes real life interesting.I know. I know. Many actually find the Rabbit novels to be very uninteresting. Many find Updike to be a little too pretentious, especially in these books. Many find these to be boring, unnecessary trifles that have done no more than elevate Updike to a literary position he may not deserve.I liked them. I liked them because, over the course of the four books, I truly got to know Harry Angstrom. I knew what he was going to do, felt his every pain and struggle. When he was in the hospital, I developed a sympathy chest pain. When he was watching his home burn down, I was smelling fire in the distance. When he hurt, or was hurt, I wanted it to stop – I wanted to do something to steer the characters in the right direction, to grab them by the shoulders and remind them of what had happened in the past – where the destructive nature was going to lead, why they were making mistakes that they should have learned from in years past.I enjoyed the decade-wide time capsules and the growth of the characters and the references to past seemingly inconsequential events. And Updike, despite all that he did to make Rabbit Angstrom completely sex-crazed at times, is a great writer. You’ve got to hand him that.So yeah, I tended to grasp the characters emotionally. In everyday life, I’d find things that reminded me of Harry Angstrom, simply because he seemed so real – so ordinary and so knowable.I’m not sure I’d have had the same effect if I read them spread out over a long time. I’m not sure I’d have even finished the collection. But I’m sure glad I did.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr.
Reading can be rewarding.I’m late to this party. Everyone has been expounding on their love for this month’s book – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But before Oprah, and before the Tournament of Books, and especially before the hype and praise and high expectations, I decided I’d better give this book a shot. So, essentially, I read The Road just a few weeks before it went from hidden gem to full-out media blitz.I read it nearly straight through, in three sleepless nights. I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to put it down.While following The Road’s main characters – a father and his son – down into the horrible world of post-apocalyptic wasteland, I felt I owed these characters something – that I needed to continue reading to make their sacrifices pertinent. To make their suffering worthwhile.I was left wordless. I couldn’t think of anything but the book. The tortured landscape. The bands of wild rebels, roaming along the roads, searching and hiding and turning everything they could into a viable source of nutrition. Fighting for their lives in the most terrible ways.Reading The Road leaves nothing but thought. It spells out the special bond between father and son, especially when put to the test. It shows survival like no other. How hard it is to break a spirit. How long it takes a man to die inside, and what that does to the body outside.It leaves you wondering why the world has, for the most part, ended? We barely know. For our own protection, I assume. Could we take the truth? Isn’t it enough to walk alongside these vacant, hollowed out corpses, slumming from camp to camp, fearful of not just death, but of how death can come; armed with enough to make it quick – dying being the only escape from capture.Think of everything we take for granted.Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you’re going.And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren’t any. There’s no time for dreaming – no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?After reading The Road, I thought long and hard about what I would do. I thought about the events that led up to this destruction. I considered the role of global warming, of nuclear war, of driving wedges into every peace-deprived location on this ever warring earth. How far are we from total annihilation? How far are we from turning this dystopian wasteland – one under rigid social control not from a group or government, but from nature, specifically human nature’s will to survive – into a true life prophesy?The Road is a masterpiece. I say that without hyperbole. It’s the best book I’ve read in the past five years. I love the mystery and the subtle reminders of a former life. I love every time McCarthy sends us back a few years, to when people had just begun dying; trying to give us clues as to what really happened.Really, I’m not sure we could handle what happened. Just like the two lonely souls walking along that road couldn’t bear to look back.Why would you want to? Maybe that’s something else we take for granted – the idea that memories don’t disappear, and that sometimes looking back can be more harmful than anything we could do to ourselves. When your only way is forward, and your only reprise is death – why would you ever want to look back down the road. Why would it matter where you came from?The Road. It reaffirms the art of writing fiction. What else can we say about it?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar.
I’m not ready this month.Seriously. I’ve only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I’ve only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I’m just not ready for February to be over.I shouldn’t complain, though – both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn’t being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.What’s intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated – in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don’t know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they’d even live to find out.In The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece – a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It’s a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women’s rights in a future that doesn’t respect either ideal. It’s frightening in its own right – women forced to be subservient because that’s the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It’s scary.And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn’t the science fiction aspect – it’s the loss that the protagonist feels. It’s a powerless struggle against an old life – a women’s lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.That’s what Atwood really does in this book – she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability – the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers’ What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino’s Sudan is real – a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It’s vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It’s written in Valentino’s voice, using Valentino’s visions and painting Valentino’s picture.What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys – the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He’s brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He’s placed alongside the resistance forces. He’s forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He’s miserable. And he’s got no escape. After all, where could he go?The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous – just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.I’d call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can’t really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood – words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight – an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that’s a few days late.I mean, my life wasn’t on the line. That’s pressure. That’s displacement.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.
As a reader, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy a wide variety of literary pieces – from potboiler mysteries to critically acclaimed tomes. I just like to read, I guess, and I like to talk about reading. And because I (unfortunately) don’t have a lot of people in my life to talk about reading with, I find myself simply reading more, filling the spaces usually reserved for discussion with another book or two.On the other hand, I’ve always cast a wary eye at the book club culture. Though sometimes desperate to speak about East of Eden and the themes therein, I hate the idea of joining a book club (or book group, or reading circle, or whatever you call it) and essentially being forced to read a specific novel, regardless of whether or not it’s on your list of “To Be Reads.”So here I sit, frightfully aware that I am shunning the most popular way to communicate about books while lamenting on the lack of literary conversationalists in my life. I mean, it’s hard to talk about books that I’ve read if the people I know haven’t read them as well. Hence, a book club would be a good idea.And with that, I will admit my defeat. I have crumpled. My wife, who has always wanted to start a book club (and has herself appeared in a few over time) convinced me that it was the proper way to go. We gathered some friends, chose a book, and made a date. I’m in a real book club now, no longer clinging to this faux book club gimmick that I’ve used here at Millions to reach a wider audience.The book of the month (both here and at home) is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Have you read this? If so, can you believe that this is Zadie Smith’s first novel? (It is!) Can you believe that it first appeared on the scene in 1997, when she was just 22? (It’s true!) It’s amazing, actually, that I didn’t spontaneously combust while reading it. I was that jealous – of her writing, of her storytelling, and especially of her complex narrative – one that weaves through two generations of London outcasts so wonderfully that I felt attached to their stories, each one of them.White Teeth is a tale of immigration, albeit an angry and forlorn type of immigration. In it, we find a pair of immigrants, their friends (one of which is also an immigrant), and their children struggling with acceptance. Every character has a sort of pained disdain for every other character, which leads to a wonderfully rich web of alliances and experiences. It’s written with snark – as if Zadie had channeled the failed lives of her characters and funneled their speech through her pen.As far as first novels go, few are this good. Surprisingly, Smith doesn’t rely on clever writing and funny anecdotes to drive her characters. Instead, she delves deeply into the mindset of each character.There’s Samad Iqbal, a man who longs for his motherland and takes up a failed form of Islam, one that is constantly strained by both his wife, Alsana, and his location: 1980s London. There’s Archie Jones and his wife Clara – two amazingly simple people with amazingly complex friendships and pasts. And then there are the kids; three children who grow to despise their expected callings, forcing their way out of the caste and into an extreme and opposite version of their parent’s desires.Smith uses White Teeth to touch upon the bonds of parenthood. She searches for meaning within the failed expectations of a child led astray. She manages to grasp the bonds that tie us to our religion and sort them out while illustrating how complicated religion can be, even among people of the same beliefs. She shows us the difference between intent and action, leaving us to ask – which is more important? The intent to do good? Or the actual doing of good, even if on accident? And which, ultimately, will win out?Did I mention that she was 22? When I was that young, I was just learning how to drink alcohol properly. Damn it.White Teeth looks at immigration from a more resistive stance, one that is tense, sarcastic and angry. These people moved from high status to low, from small-town India and Jamaica to London, where they are easily lost and often mocked. Instead of helping to create the land they are moving to, they are expected to fit into the land, slowly fading into the background until they have become a forgotten relic of some ancient culture. Until they are more British, really, and less whatever they used to be. Instead of blending their beliefs with the culture around them, they are forced to become part of the culture, leaving their pasts behind.There’s a whole load of themes and discussion topics with White Teeth. I’ve probably missed a few: science vs. religion; nature vs. nurture; the power of a wonderfully planned, converging set of story lines. But one thing is for sure. I haven’t been more awed (and more jealous) of a book in a long time. Which is good.After all, I got the chance talk to more than just myself about it this time.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006.
This year, Corey Vilhauer, a blogger from South Dakota, joined us on twelve occasions to present his book of the month. I viewed his regular installments as letters from the reading trenches, from a reader who’s willing to try anything as he expands his horizons to new genres and eras of writing. You’ll be seeing the 2007 CVBoMC starting in January. (to see last year’s entries, you can start in December and work back)I wasn’t asked, but I’m barging in on the Millions Best Books of 2006 section of the party and yelling loudly about what I like. Because it’s brash, and brazen, and lots of other words that start with “B.”Actually, as is the pattern with the Vilhauer library, I only read two or three books that were released in 2006. Two of them – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which made my top 10) and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (honorable mention) – were actually quite worth it.However, my two favorite books this year are as follows:John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – Never before has the plight of the dispossessed seemed so important. With The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl epic, the Okies get the center stage they deserved, one that holds the injustices and bad luck that followed them around up to the light for the entire world to examine. And while one might think that these stories have lost their weight, that modern culture has cut Steinbeck’s novel off at the knees, it’s simply not the case. The Grapes of Wrath is just as important today as it was in the 40s. In fact, you can’t deny the similarities between the Dust Bowl’s mass exodus and New Orleans’ migration of displaced people. Bad luck, injustice – it’s all pretty much parallel.McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, edited by Chris Ware (2004) – I somehow missed the comic phenomenon when I was younger. But, after receiving McSweeney’s #13 in the mail (“the Comic Issue”, with a wonderful cover penned by Special Editor Chris Ware) the fire was rekindled slightly. This book is beautifully bound, with hundreds of full color prints, articles from some of the most well known authors and graphic artists, and simply packed to the gills with today’s important comic creators. If you want to get into modern comics and graphic novels, get this first. You won’t be disappointed.Of course, there were more books – I’ve got an entire top 10 (and more, including honorable mentions) at Black Marks on Wood Pulp. It’s the year end edition of “What I’ve Been Reading.” So if you don’t mind mindless plugging, go ahead and visit.Thanks Corey!
Okay, everyone. Listen up – especially you men out there. There’s a common feeling among casual readers that certain authors are untouchable by the male mind – books that are filled with flowery descriptions and love and all that crap. Books by Woolf, or by either of the Brontes. Or Austen. Or Hugo.Hugo. Victor Hugo, the man who, without knowing, created a Broadway play, a handful of movies, one of which starred Liam Neeson, and penned one of the best character names – Jean Valjean, a name that, to me, ranks up there with Oakland quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo as a classic in pronunciation. Victor Hugo, the man who posed for this awesome picture, a portrait that somehow symbolizes all that being a male author in the 1800s (and, on into the 1900s, of course) was all about – namely, drinking and hangovers.Sorry. What were we talking about? Oh – these novels, these books that have been for years embraced by literary women, leaving us men to grasp to more masculine works of fiction, forcing us to “settle” for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck. What are they all about? Why do these books seem to radiate such femininity? Am I the only person who feels this?As part of my ongoing quest to collect reading experiences like a child collecting bruises, I cracked open Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and attempted to figure out what makes him so great. Sure, he had an amazing ability to write 600-page tomes, but was he actually something special? Did he deserve the romantic role he was put into – the writer who joined the ugly with the beautiful, the despondent with the wealthy?Well, yeah. He’s good. For those of you who have read Hugo, you have to admit his ability to describe a scene is wonderful. For those who haven’t, don’t fret – it’s not difficult to read a 600-page novel, not when you’re absolutely positive you’ve lived its story before. That’s what Hugo does, and it’s an art that many don’t always appreciate – including myself.Hunchback isn’t about Esmeralda, the gypsy queen, or about Claude Frollo, an unsympathetic bishop, or even about Quasimodo, the hunchback himself. It’s about the building. It’s about the Cathedral of Notre Dame. It’s about the scenes, and the story behind it, and the history it drives. What Hugo did in writing Hunchback was to create a story where location was king, where the protagonist was the building itself, whether it was under siege or simply biding its time.For the first 100 pages or so, very little happens plot-wise. Instead, Hugo spends the first sixth of the novel laying a foundation, describing every facet of the building, every road and every character, their motives, their feelings, their drives and fears. From here, the rest of the story nearly writes itself. You’re sucked in. You have no choice in the matter, really, because after the first portion has described every detail of life in Quasimodo’s Paris, you’re part of the story, joined in exploit with the characters due to Hugo’s ability to make everything seem real.Romantically, Hunchback isn’t as obvious as one might think. Most of the relationships contained therein are either one-sided, gaining an almost “creepy stalker” quality, or are short-lived. In fact, the most romantic item in the book comes at the end, involves death, and is kind of gross. It’s no wonder that the ending was sanitized for Disney audiences, much to the chagrin of true literary snobs.No, Hugo wasn’t as pure or talented a writer as Dostoyevsky, or Flaubert, or even the aforementioned Austen. But he also doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the “girls like him because he’s romantic” crowd. Instead, he should be recognized for what he did best – setting the scene, placing the reader into the story, and creating an entire world that can be touched, breathed, and lived in – even if only for a few hundred pages.Hi. My name is Corey. I’m male, and I’ve read Victor Hugo. And I enjoyed it.(All together, in unison:) Hi, Corey.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct, Nov
It’s official. I’m done!This month, I finally finished my Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set. I read nearly every page over a broken, two-month period (the first month – my Millions debut – can be found here). It was a difficult, grueling battle, but I made it through with only a few bruises and just one small paper cut. And now, as I had always hoped, I have a full awareness of all things “literature.” I’m ready to start teaching World Lit at Harvard.Well, actually, I’m not. In fact, I’ve given myself an even greater test: I’m giving myself three years to fully comprehend at least one title from the classic authors I’ve (until now) completely missed.But that’s the future. This is the present. Revel with me as I celebrate this accomplishment!Choosing one of these selections as the “book of the month” turned out to be more difficult than actually reading them. I read 36 books this month: part of a classic (the very long, very complicated, incredibly wordy and not entirely pleasant A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens) and 35 54-page Pocket Penguins. That’s a lot of books to filter through.Obviously, I can’t choose any of the books that I didn’t really fully read or any of the books that I quickly skimmed through on my way to another selection. Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes I cheated. You can’t blame me – this entire collection features a wide array of genres: poetry (skimmed), history (primarily rooted in World War II, most of which I read, but honestly didn’t read fully and skimmed), biography (Churchill’s and Percy’s biographies were skimmed, Selassie’s outright skipped after the first ten pages) and memoir (many were skipped after a few pages). I couldn’t possibly do it all without screaming.This left me with about 20-25 works of fiction that I enjoyed at varying degrees.What I found is that this entire 70-book collection is really a celebration of the short story. When condensing an author into 54 pages, a publisher can only choose the shortest of selections. A majority of the time, this means a selection of short stories. When “true” short stories weren’t chosen, we find excerpts or expurgated chapters instead. Regardless of its original form, it’s a short story all the same. I was blind to it through the first 35 books, but this time it was all I could think of.Throughout the second half of my Anniversary travels, I marveled at how so many authors could sum up a literary career into just 54 pages – how they could completely buck the novel’s tradition and contain their words concisely into these Penguin selections.So with that in mind, I needed to choose one book – the one book that captures everything that short stories are to me: emotion, curiosity and mystery; ultimately, thought-provoking literature that drives me to read on and devour the next short story while still feeling the heat of the previous one.Enter Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine. The Book of the Month.I have found that most short story writing involves a quick slice of life, one that reveals only as much as needed, leaving the reader a chance to fill in the gaping holes. A great short story fills those holes without much effort, using the power of its passages as an assumed backbone, driving characters together not through writing, but through the normal constraints of society and culture.Bank’s title story does a great job of doing this. In it we find a young woman – an assistant editor who is not entirely sure of her own talents – struggling with two relationships; a love/hate connection with her on-again-off-again boyfriend and a wait-and-see connection with her father, a once strong man who is dying from leukemia.The emotion is there – this is a young woman who doesn’t know what to do in life. We’ve all been there, obviously; unsure of our place, wondering if we chose the right life, the right partner, or the right career. In this case, we find a woman who is being overwhelmed through every aspect of life – at work, with an older boyfriend, and with her father’s sickness. She feels pulled in every direction, forced to accept her position editing books (a job that is quite below her position) and to accept the criticism from an older man – her personal father figure. All the while, her actual father is sick – very sick.The curiosity is there. Where did these people meet? Why has she made these decisions, and why does she continue to stick by them? How will her father end up, and will her boyfriend be there to support her. Is he drinking again?Is she safe with herself?As good as Bank’s story was, it all kept bringing me back to the style as a whole – the short story as a concept and viable literary interest. Short stories are designed to view a small, minute portion of life and weigh it against society. They’re created to leave a suspenseful impression, one that makes you wish you could know the rest of the story and one that – for just a few seconds – leaves you considering just writing the story yourself.Often times, this is exactly what happens. In your mind, you have the ability to fill in the holes, to create biographies based on the hints an author leaves behind. There’s no better writing prompt than a short story. And it seems sometimes like there’s no harder piece of literature to actually compose.It is said that poetry is literature condensed. It gives each word an incredible weight that cannot be reproduced in prose (lest it become too weighty and difficult). Short stories take the weight away from the words and give it to the moment. Each second of a shortened piece of literature means the world. It is intensely analyzed and purposefully constructed. For me, it’s the most perfect form of writing.So let’s hear it for short stories, eh? Let’s hear it for Lorrie Moore, for David Sedaris, and for Lewis Thomas. A round of applause for Ian McEwan, for Will Self, and for David Foster Wallace. And let’s not let the brevity of a short story ruin the weight of its moment in the spotlight.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept, Oct
I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was young once. So were you.Of course, there are lots of things I’m ashamed to admit about my youth. But I’m not ashamed to say that I was young at one time, and that during that one time I may have done things that were entirely “not cool” and that by doing those things, I managed to ostracize myself from all of the other people who called themselves my classmates.Jason Taylor isn’t that different. From me. From you. We all went through it – whether it was on the cool, invited-to-every-party side or the ridiculously dorky, playing-board-games-with-your-parents side. What makes him different is his ability to transcend everything, to be brilliant and thoughtful and clever while being torn apart by the wolves that make up the popular group.In his head, that is. Jason’s not actually bringing any of these traits into the open. In David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green – our book of the month, if you haven’t caught on – Jason Taylor is a virtuoso; a child who has mastered the art of words at a young age but hasn’t quite mastered the art of fitting in. He’s a poet, which is either wonderful or terrifying, depending on your views. To Jason, it was terrifying.Imagine, if you are male, telling your classmates that you were a ballerina. Or that you wore dresses. That’s the same stigma Jason lived with. Oh, that and the fact that he couldn’t speak without stammering (which is different from stuttering), thus making all of his word-ly talents null and void when it came to saying them out loud.Black Swan Green is set as a series of short stories, joined together in chronological order but not directly tied into each other from story to story. It’s also a classic coming of age story, although instead of “learning how to survive life,” Jason finds himself “learning how to survive middle school.” This, as we all know, is more dangerous than anything life has afterward.Remember the feeling you had when a group of older kids came wandering down the path? That feeling of dread as you hoped they wouldn’t notice you? As you hoped they would just walk on by? That’s Jason’s life. It’s a little chapter out of each of our lives. And it’s nearly frightening how Mitchell pens a story so incredibly close to our awkward adolescent lives.Mitchell has a way with drawing the life out of a common experience – that naughty girl that you kind of liked; the feeling of being (finally) included into the cool kids’ group, even if only for a moment; the overbearing chore of keeping your parents off of the scent that you were being bullied, because after all, there’s nothing worse than your parents getting involved in a school terror ring. It’s all spelled out, exactly the way it happened. It’s stark, it’s hopeless, but eventually, it’s empowering and triumphant. Jason doesn’t just get picked on; he fights back and wins a few battles of his own.If you were one of the kids that slid through school without a care, knowing that when it came down to it you were bred to be successful and rich and fantastically popular, then you should read this book. Just to see the Hell you put the rest of us through. And if you were in Hell during those times, then maybe it would be a good idea to read Black Swan Green as well – to soak in the bad moments and realize, “Hey, I turned out all right. I persevered, and now (hopefully) I am living a richer and more wildly-varied life than any of those popular Neanderthals are.”After all, we shouldn’t forget what made us, right?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr, May, June, July, Aug, Sept