Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why We Need Love by Simon Van Booy

Why We Need Love
edited by Simon Van Booy

Part of a trilogy (see also Why We Fight and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter, reviews forthcoming), Simon Van Booy collects the words and images of notable minds, attempting to answer the question of love and its necessity to our lives. From Nietzsche to Shakespeare to Cummings to experts in Buddhism, it is a thought-provoking and slim volume that inevitably asks the reader to answer the question for themselves.

“My hope for these books is to present interesting and exciting philosophical ideas in a straightforward, but intelligent, language that can be understood by everyone,” Van Booy says in the preface. “These volumes are not meant to convince you of anything, to be a definitive source, or to offer any new insights on a topic. Their purpose is to simply introduce you to an age-old theme that quite possibly has already taken a key role in your life.”

And who hasn’t loved, really? Save the sociopaths, we all fall in love with someone or something — and if we’re lucky, we get to do it again and again.

“True love is like ghosts, which everyone talks about and few have seen.”
— François de La Rochefoucald

I’d seen this quote prior to this volume, and I had it scribbled in a notebook when I was a teenager — written not in an act of self-pity, but as one of smug satisfaction. I’d known love, I felt love, and goddammit, I was special. Now? I don’t agree with the quote at all. I don’t think the numbers are few, but maybe some aren’t paying attention or are afraid. All love is true; it’s only the varieties that change.

For instance:

I love my husband and my children. That’s the “I would do anything for you,” all-encompassing sort of love. There are a couple of others who would land in this category.

I love certain musicians and other forms of entertainment. Noel Gallagher’s songwriting speaks to my soul. It is indulgent, but wholehearted love, despite not knowing him personally.

I love Thai red curries. I love a good sandwich. This does not change. If you think this is silly, ask my husband about the time I finally returned to Pickle Barrel for their steak sandwich. You know the healing power of food; you know you do.

“In contrast to both types of love [brotherly and motherly] is erotic love; it is the craving for complete fusion, for union with one other person. It is by its very nature exclusive and not universal; it is also perhaps the most deceptive form of love there is.”
— Erich Fromm from The Art of Loving

Here, I would argue that there are two subsets of erotic love — the marrying kind and the lustful kind. “But isn’t lust a different thing?” you might ask. Sometimes, sure — just ask Texts From Last Night — but of course they overlap. Rather than describe lust as something tawdry, I would define it more as “passion.” And oh yes is it hard to pin down. We constantly try to define our feelings and are constantly comparing them to what is “normal,” when really it might be beneficial to just let the feelings happen.

Michael Chabon, in discussing his novel Mysteries of Pittsburgh, once said, “I had slept with one man whom I loved, and learned to love another man so much that it would never have occurred to me to want to sleep with him.” He’s married to a woman and has several children, and I often recall this quote whenever someone is trying too hard to label love.

One of the book’s most effective explorations marrying-erotic love is the poem “Without You” by Adrian Henri. I loved it so much, I tappity-tap-tapped it into my husband’s notes section on his iPod. My favorite lines:

Without you I’d have to leave my stillborn poems on other
people’s doorsteps, wrapped in brown paper


Without you Clark Kent would forget how to become Superman,


Without you it would be an offence punishable by a fine of up
to £200 or two months imprisonment to be found in
possession of curry powder,

It’s funny, beautiful, sweet and true.

On the fiction side of excerpts, Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case: A Study of Temperament” is just excellent. She explores the wholehearted love of something greater than yourself — in this case, a young man’s love of theatre, costume and music. Paul runs away from Pittsburgh after his father forbids him to spend any more time at the theater. Having stolen deposit money from his job, he goes on a New York City shopping spree and books himself a room at the Waldorf.

It had been wonderfully simple; when they had shut him out of the theatre and concert hall, when they had taken away his bone, the whole thing was virtually determined. The rest was a mere matter of opportunity.

The whole story is a great discussion on the transforming power of art and what happens when those opportunities are not only taken away, but actively discouraged. It was the highlight of the book for me.

Why We Need Love not only provides insight as to how people have viewed love over time, but it will either illuminate or reenforce your own thoughts on all those great rib-bursting feelings.

Who, being loved, is poor?
— Oscar Wilde


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Everything is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert

Everything is Going to Be Great: An Underfunded and Overexposed European Grand Tour
by Rachel Shukert

“I have to tell you: I love looking at myself in the mirror,” Rachel Shukert says at the start of her book. “I realize that coming from a person who has published two memoirs before the age of thirty, this admission is about as shocking as a teenage boy owning up to a furtive wank into a brittle notebook during an unsupervised study period.”

Funny, self-deprecating and never reticent when it comes to sex, Shukert takes an honest look at one of the most unanchored period of her life. Freshly graduated from NYU and completely broke, she lands a nonspeaking and nonpaying role in an experimental play. The respected-though-insane director arranges a European tour, and on the way, she manages to score an unstamped passport. Now able to spend as much time in Europe as she pleases, she decides to stay in Amsterdam after the tour ends. The phone call home is just the beginning of the strange and hilarious conversations with her mother:

“You can’t stay in Europe forever!” she ranted. “What are you, some kind of refugee? You’ll be deported! The immigration people will kidnap you in the middle of the night and send you back in shackles! Your credit will be ruined and you’ll never get health insurance. You’ll go straight to jail, or worse!”

I assured her that as long as I resisted joining a terrorist cell, this was highly unlikely.

“What do you think you’re going to do for money?” she asked vehemently, switching tack. “How are you going to support yourself?”

“How do I support myself in New York?”

“Oh no,” she said. “No, no, no. If you think I’m going to schlep to Western Union and wire you money every two weeks, you are out of your fucking mind.”

I said I had enough money to get by for a while, and besides, I would be working.

She scoffed. “In Amsterdam? Feh. I don’t even want to think about it.”

She goes to live with two old friends, Jeroen and Mattijs, who are in the process of securing government funding for their theater company. Day-to-day Dutch culture both amuses and frustrates her — what with trash-sorting akin to godliness, and the unavailability of seasonal allergy and lactose intolerance medication. Perhaps the most baffling is what she calls “The Law of Phil Collins:”

Given: In every bar, café, shop, or other public place in the Netherlands where background music is played, every fourth song will always be a song by Phil Collins.


“What are you talking about?” one man said to me, in shock. “The whole world loves Phil Collins.” I was not permitted a follow-up question. The drum solo from “In the Air Tonight” was coming up.

The trouble with reading an excellent, supremely funny book is that I could probably read the whole thing aloud to passerby (though some of it not while small, parroting children are present), and as such, I could flip open just about any page and excerpt it here. Shukert never falls into the navel-gazing, “look how important and witty I am” trap that other memorists might — she is who she is, and that’s how she writes. It’s refreshing, having an author talk about both good times and also the most embarrassing, since any good writer knows that the humiliating stuff is really just more writing fodder. (All my best personal stories are the embarrassing ones.)

Perhaps where she becomes most honest is when it comes to her serious, though flawed and ultimately failed, relationship with a man named Pete. She’s the “other woman” in this story, as Pete is common law married to someone else. His romance and intense feelings keep her justifying their arrangement longer than she should. She doesn’t hesitate to point out that everyone else saw the end coming, and that she was acting like a naive idiot (as you do).

I’ve never been one to drown my sorrows in a carton of Ben and Jerry’s. Not when good old-fashioned grain alcohol nourishes the body and the soul.

This is not a group-hug, Elizabeth Gilbert-style memoir, and the world is better for it.


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Interview with Melissa from Mel's Books and Info

September 13-17, 2010 is Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Founded by Amy Riley, "The week spotlights and celebrates the work of active book bloggers through guest posts, awards, giveaways, and community activities."

For September 14th, book bloggers were invited to interview each other. Through the sign-up list, I was paired up with Melissa from Mel's Books and Info. Her popular blog focuses mainly on teen literature, and uses a 1-5 star scale for ratings, similar to Goodreads.

Welcome to my neck of the woods, Melissa. Tell us about yourself.

Thank you for interviewing me on your blog! Well, I am a teen librarian at our local public library and I absolutely love my job. My favorite part of the job is selecting new teen books for our collection and recommending those books to teens who come into the library. I also recommend them to adults to and am simply amazed by how many adults in our community, including our own library staff, are starting to get hooked on YA fiction. I am also married and have one son who is 2 years old. My two year old doesn’t like it when mommy reads her books. He wants me to read to him all the time!

When did you start blogging?

My first attempt at blogging was with Live Journal back in 2006. It was really a testing ground of sorts, and the entries weren’t the greatest. I didn’t really start seriously blogging until earlier this year.

Why did you start blogging?

Originally it started out as a project for work. We were talking about how we could start a blog at our library to post our programs on, updates for our book orders, and even do some reviews. I really wanted to be able to convince them that we could have a whole lot of useful information on a blog and that it would be good advertising for the library. It also has the added benefit of being easy to update unlike our organization’s web page. I figured the best way to convince them was to show them how a blog could look, and what it could contain, so I just started one and started writing reviews. My personal blog was originally my testing ground for what I would later do on the library’s blog. Eventually though, I got hooked and started finding other bloggers out there who share my interests in reading and are even reading the same types of books I do. I had always wanted to be in a book group, but I never had the opportunity because of the small community where I live and because I am normally working during the library book discussions. When I discovered that other bloggers like to talk books too, and I had a place to share my love of teen lit I was completely hooked.

As a teen librarian, what types of library-patron reading habits have you noticed over the years? Did anything become unexpectedly popular?

I’ve noticed that interests tend to go in phases. Witches and wizards gained popularity with Harry Potter and everything coming out for a while was compared to Harry Potter. Since Twilight, vampires, who have always been popular, suddenly are huge. Werewolves have also taken off lately, as have fallen angel stories. You see these trends come and go. Paranormal has also been on the rise lately. While these always remain popular to some, I admit that I have been surprised by the fact they seem to be taking over. 90% of the requests I get from patrons tend to be paranormal, vampire, and werewolf books. This seems to be overshadowing the realistic fiction which has always been a YA staple. Another genre, and one of my personal favorites that is on the rise is the dystopian or post-apocalyptic fiction--I never would have seen that coming, but the books in this genre are so good they are catching a lot of interest.

Another trend that has surprised me of late has been the number of adults in our library turning to YA books. I sometimes have better luck selling teen books to adults. I have even gotten my coworkers and my mother hooked on teen lit. Staff members at our library are constantly coming to me and asking me if I have read this teen novel or that. It really helps, because if I haven’t read it, I can usually ask one of them. It is great.

What has been the most surprising aspect of reviewing books?

I think the most surprising aspect of reviewing books for me is how much my reviews have changed over time. I know they say the more you write the better your writing gets, I think that is true with reviews too. When I look back at the early reviews I wrote, I ask myself, “Did I really write that?” and not in a good way. In some cases I want to go back, re-read the novel, and re-write the review. Right up there with that change in the reviews, would probably be that people actually comment on my reviews! I love comments, even if you don’t agree with my reviews, I love to hear what people think. The blogging community has been so receptive and supportive, it makes reviewing so much fun.

On your blog, you've spoken a lot about your love for novels set in dystopian futures, for instance, The Hunger Games. For people new to your site or new to the genre in general, what makes these books so appealing?

On the surface, dystopian novels would seem to be somewhat depressing. You are looking at a world gone horribly wrong and a teen stuck there just simply trying to survive. Despite how negative it sounds, I have found dystopian literature to be strangely hopeful. It shows you how one person can really sometimes make a difference and change lives. I definitely prefer the teen version of dystopian fiction, because unlike many of its adult counterparts, teen dystopian fiction retains that hope and you can see change occur in these societies that have gone so wrong. In some cases they are even somewhat cautionary tales, warning us about taking care of our environment, and the dangers of governments that control too much of a people’s personal lives and choices. They can promote discussions that get us to think about issues in our own worlds. And then of course they are usually full of action, danger, and adventure.

Outside of teen lit, what are your favorite books?

That is a tough question, so much of what I read is teen fiction. I would have to say one of my favorite adult fiction series is the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich. I like them because they make me laugh. Every June when the new one comes out I put down what I am reading to read the next novel in the series. Another favorite series would be Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I am anxious to finally see how this series ends. I also love Laurie R. King’s Mary Russel novels. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is one of my favorite books to re-read. Finally, the other book that ranks on the top of that list would be The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Is there anything else you would like to add or anything you would like to let readers know about you or your blog?

You can come visit me at Mel’s Books and Info. Please feel free to comment, I love to hear what you have to say! You can also follow me @wheems01 on Twitter, and follow my reviews on Goodreads.com.

Read my interview with Melissa over on her page.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca

Midnight Picnic
by Nick Antosca

How our living selves affect the afterlife has been, and will continue to be, a matter of debate. In literature alone, countless stories have explored the stages of death, of grieving, and that of otherworldly retribution. In Midnight Picnic, Nick Antosca leaves religion out of the discussion and instead explores feelings of abandonment, anger and regret.

After a long evening in his rural West Virginian town, Bram discovers the bones of a child. Unsure of their origin or what to do about them, he takes them home. He hasn’t been feeling well, misses his father stationed in Iraq, and the depression of his roommate, Marian, weighs on him. Suddenly, the child himself appears in his room. “My name is Adam Dovey,” he says. “Help me get Jacob Bunny.”

Convinced by the child to kill his murderer, Bram begins a strange journey into the afterlife, where day and night bleed into one everlasting twilight, and the lonely living intermingle unknowingly with the dead. Full of tension and mystery, it’s a fantastic, quick-paced novel.

Antosca has a way with spectral imagery straight from the beginning. Even without the back cover summary, one knows the environment into which they’ve stumbled:

Lightning bleaches the sky. For an instant, the woods turn a cadaverous white-grey, like cauliflower or brains.

Even in flashback, the narrative remains in present tense, a reminder of the flexibility of time and perception. The inner panic of each character stays constant and real — understandable, even in terms of murder.

There is no escape. Shame and nightmares. The horror of other people, having to function amongst them when you are broken and unfixable.

There is no escape.

There’s a lot to absorb. Trying to make sense of what happens to Bram and what actions signify other things can make for a bit of a mind-bend when tired before bed. I took a long time pondering the quick ending and attempted to piece together clues to form the larger picture of what had happened. In that way, the book will probably benefit from a second read. However, it’s not confusing in a frustrating way — I want to clear up some of the ambiguity, rather than just put the book down, think “That was strange,” and move on. Antosca uses a lot of subtle tricks that don’t quite work their magic until the final pages. One has to trust, moving through the pages, that they will serve a purpose. In that sense, the book succeeds in disorienting the reader as much as its characters.

This is no great story of redemption, nor is it one of God and ghosts. If anything, it’s about making peace with the living self before everything is gone:

“I think that when you die you lose parts of yourself, you erode. Pieces slough off and go somewhere else, into other things. You can feel it happening. I think there is no ... immortal ‘soul.’ Just something that lasts for awhile as it falls apart ... as it decomposes like everything does, to feed other things.”

With Autumn and Halloween approaching, Midnight Picnic might just be the essential book to usher in the season. It’s certainly worth a look.


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with two others for review purposes from Word Riot Press. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on The Rumpus, October 6, 2010.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

World Takes by Timmy Waldron

World Takes
by Timmy Waldron

Grasping at little bits of happiness wherever they can be found, the characters in Timmy Waldron’s short stories inhabit the space between hope and hopelessness. World Takes is a satisfying, slim collection of tales that are familiar, yet also windows into an unknown universe.

Perhaps Waldron’s greatest strengths are his first sentences. Writing teachers and advice articles always talk about that “hook” one needs to draw in the reader. The hook should not be gimmicky, of course, but enough to make the reader not just want to continue, but feel required to do so. Even in the stories I did not like as much, I couldn’t argue with the quality of their first words:

How many times did you trip and fall on that same piece of uneven sidewalk before you learned to walk on the other side of the street?

And when I wake up, I don’t feel the doom.
(“City Limits”)

There is a silent unmoving pile of bodies that fills the living room.

The stories are amusing in a subtle way — more dark humor than anything. In “Sinjin’s Crossing,” an elderly George Washington impersonator loses his job and takes it upon himself to enact farcical revenge on the man who ousted him. In “City Limits,” college kids stumble through dating one another, all while sleeping with other people in their group on the side, all of it one poorly kept secret.

Martha touches a button on my shirt. That’s all it takes, fiddling with a shirt button and I will do whatever she wants for the rest of the day.

Each character wants to be appreciated, in however small an amount, despite knowing that most of the time they do not deserve it. It’s a nice take on the idea that everyone is screwed up in their own special way, but that their faults do not necessarily equal a bad person.

I’ve been reading a lot of short stories lately, mainly because I want to get better at writing them. Since I spent several years working on the same 103,000-word book, my head has been in “long form.” Apart from a few one-offs, I haven’t concentrated on the small ideas. I’ve been using short stories as study material — seeing how the authors switch voices from piece to piece. Some are better at it than others, of course. To make a recent comparison, Jackie Corley’s characters in The Suburban Swindle were less distinct from one another, but I think that had more to do with them coming from the same hard environment. In World Takes, Timmy Waldron moves from different points-of-view a bit more effortlessly:

Two weeks went by in a gray and black blue of extended family, priests, and total strangers. Tin trays of food occupied every possible bit of counter space in the kitchen. It would be impossible for Zoe to go through the rest of her life without smelling deli meats or baked Ziti and not think about death.
(“A Song For Orphans”)

Everything just totally sucks, and I can’t stop reading The Catcher in the Rye. To tell the truth, I’m not really reading the book. I only read certain parts. But I do like carrying it around with me. It gives me some kind of arty sensitive look. It was banned from school. Plus, it helps with boner camouflage.
(“The Gary Game”)

Some of the shorter strories like “Amanda” and “Coda,” I had to read more than once — the abbreviated, semi-vague tone didn’t lend itself to immediate absorption. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with having to go back and read something again, but I preferred the more straightforward stories. Still, I’m glad I read it and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a different voice in short fiction.


Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with two others for review purposes from Word Riot Press. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Suburban Swindle by Jackie Corley

The Suburban Swindle
by Jackie Corley

Tucked into the darkened corners of New Jersey’s broken homes and addict hovels live Jackie Corley’s characters. They’re caught between numbness and desire, and their ambitions only extend as far as their tenuous loyalty. In her collection of short stories, The Suburban Swindle, Corley immerses us into a world where pain means authenticity, and authenticity might be the only path to pleasure.

It’s a slim volume, eight stories alone, but all are drenched in the smallest details — the way a bitter drink slides down throats, the texture of scars from old wounds, and the way the one’s environment turns otherworldly while under the influence.

Our fingers got greased up and sticky, and we’d lick the tang that sealed up over the tobacco tint; we’d deep throat the sloppy bottle necks and laugh. (“Catfish Boys”)

I didn’t love every story — some seemed too lost in the details at the expense of plot — but I did appreciate the realness of each character. None are all that likeable, but I’ve certainly met people like them. They’re the screwed up men and women you see out in dive bars, scruffy and intense with one another, knowing the bartender by name. They smoke cheap cigarettes outside and talk blithely about their buddy’s most recent criminal troubles.

Possession remains a common theme throughout, with characters looking for meaning in friendships and romantic entanglements. They don’t know what to do with themselves if they are not giving or receiving pain in some way, as though they don’t know what to trust without it.

The cigarette should burrow through him. It should take his skin to butter and give me a rabbit hole on his skinny, hairless arm. Then I could pull up his shirt any time I wanted and admire it, that charred empty well. It would always belong to me. (“Fine Creature”)

At times, Corley gets a bit stuck on certain imagery — hands, jawlines, the way someone holds a cigarette — which sometimes cross the line from style into literary tick. I suppose all writers have them; I get stuck on arms, backs and shoulders. Perhaps they stand out more when assembling short stories from different sources into one volume. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed had I not accidentally read another review mentioning it. (I try not to read too much about a book before I finish it — don’t want to borrow insight I might not have otherwise had.) It’s like the girl with the crooked nose — once you notice, it’s all you see.

What is great about the collection, however, is that Corley maintains her own style. Outside of the burgeoning world of online literary outlets, she’s unlike other writers. Her own online literary magazine and small press, Word Riot, consistently features writers who do not fit the comfortable “writing-by-committee” mold. She doesn’t look for easy answers or tidy endings — the situations in each story stand on their own. It takes a certain braveness, and I can respect that.

For me, even if I did not enjoy all that it contained, the sign of an effective book is wanting to read more from the author. In that, The Suburban Swindle succeeds. I am interested in the evolution of Jackie Corley’s writing, and that of Word Riot in general.


Full disclosure: Word Riot sent me this book along with two others for review purposes. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.