Monday, June 8, 2015

The Autobiography You Never Read... But You Should

There is something to be said for reading books that are not the most currently published.  You pick up a book, read it, LOVE it, and then wonder 'Where was I when this came out?!'  You then start to wonder what else you're missing out on: next thing you know, you have spent hours looking for books by that author and then checking out others that are similar to that book.  You have embarked on a whole new literary journey.  Death: A Life is that book.  I was laughing until tears ran down my face, was fascinated by the underlying facts throughout the book, and was overall delighted.
Courtesy of

Published in 2008 to apparently no fanfare, Death: A Life is everything you could possibly want from a satirical novel.  It is simply the autobiography of Death.  Born to neglectful parents, Satan and Sin, Death has a sub par childhood in his home, Hell.  His family eventually emigrates to Earth, where they proceed to help usher in the fall of man and the general chaos of Earth.  Death fulfills his role faithfully, shepherding souls to the Darkness.  Until he becomes hooked on life.  His curiosity of the living leads to a nearly fatal addiction, with Death experiencing all the triumphs and tribulations of what life has to offer.  

There is a certain mischievousness about using anthropomorphism in a concept such as death;  it forces the reader to view it in a different light, not just in the natural 'fear of death' light.  Death: A Life also explores history as we know it in a different way.  Adam and Eve are pretentious and arrogant, God was on vacation during the polytheism periods of civilization, the Industrial Revolution ruined religious fervor, and the lines between demons and angels are much more blurred than we thought.  Through the satirizing of well known events and established facts, the reader has to reconsider what they thought they knew: what if history was not as clean and precise as we are taught?  What if things were messy, historical people were cantankerous and whiny, and the historical record was thoroughly cleansed of all the nuances of life?  Death: A Life can almost be considered alternative history... almost.
Author George Pendle,
courtesy of

Part of the charm of the novel lies with the nationality of the author: George Pendle is British, thus the novel is filled with British phrases and the syntax of the novel's language is very very British. The descriptions are wry but pithy, and the dialogue manages to be hilarious but plot driven at the same time.  Death: A Life is not a long read and it is not a serious, in-depth look at life.  Instead, it is thought-provoking, entertaining, and well written. There is nothing that is off limits in this book; everything is fodder for ridicule and the author makes sure to cover all the death related insanity of civilization.  Death is reverent and irreverent; he is a being like everyone else, but is a driving force in life... and in death. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Teetering on the Edge of Reality- The Novel Worlds of Neil Gaiman

Author Neil Gaiman, courtesy of
The New Yorker

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds... Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

It is hard to describe English author, Neil Gaiman. He knew he would be an author when he was a child; he fanboys over Ray Bradbury; he is a beekeeper.  He is also is an award winning author (I lost count after 75) and has had several books conquer the bestseller list.  Gaiman cannot be pigeonholed into a single genre; he has written fantasy (Stardust), comedy (Good Omens, with late author, Terry Pratchett), graphic novels, collections of short stories (Trigger Warnings is his newest book, published February 2015), children's books (some of the books lovingly referred to as "Kid Goth"), screenplays, music, general fiction... you get the idea. He has become an almost cult-like figure in the literary world; fans wait for hours, in any weather conditions to meet Gaiman, who will sign autographs and chat with fans for hours on end; his books are wildly and highly anticipated; and he makes an effort to reach out to his audience through social media, book talks, and countless interviews. He has become a major champion of libraries, leading the crusade to stress importance of libraries to our society. He loves the arts and encourages people to explore their creative side; he is not afraid to discuss and embrace his own failures. He has become the poster boy for weird. And it is magnificent.

The thought above, taken from Gaiman's comic book series The Sandman, encapsulates the overall
Courtesy of
thread that pervades all of his works . His books, his comics, his screenplays, all of them revealing the secret worlds of Gaiman, worlds that teeter on the edge of reality and blur the lines between what is real and what is purely in our imagination. There is rarely a full blown mythical fantasy land in Gaiman's works. Yet, Gaiman writes of worlds that a reader can easily relate to. These are worlds that we live in day to day, but somehow, are twisted. People have magic, places are blurred between the here and other dimensions, animals are not what they seem, the dead are more alive than we think. Gaiman's classic style is to lull the reader into a sense of normalcy and then... the big reveal: things are not what they seem. Gaiman has the gift of making the seemingly ordinary- whether it be places, people, or things- become eerily otherworldly. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2001's American Gods, which won both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Science Fiction. However, American Gods is not like any science fiction that you have ever read. In a nutshell, American Gods is a story about a recently released inmate, who continues to get slapped by life even after he gets out of prison. Shadow, the former inmate, stumbles into a conflict that has been raging for centuries on the borderline of reality. Surrounded by gods of old and new, Shadow (and the reader!) will wade through thousands of years of egos, battles, and the ultimate struggle to stay relevant. American Gods is arguably Gaiman's best novels. The research on mythology is intense and well-done; readers will be constantly Googling who is who (his sneaky way of making readers learn!). As with all his work, the prose is excellent; Gaiman truly has mastered the balance between dialogue (witty, subtle, and colorful) and description (thorough, elegant, and sparse.) American Gods was and is an instant classic. It's thought provoking premise is timeless and will make the reader reflect on modern society and the things we tend to leave behind in the name of progress.

Gaiman's children's books are also beautifully crafted and equally thought-provoking (even for an adult reader.) Winner of British Carnegie Medal and the American Newbery Medal for children's literature, The Graveyard Book is about an orphan who is raised by spirits that live in a nearby cemetery. Their powers keep him safe. Yet, there are forces at hand which are working
Courtesy of
against them, working to try to lure Nobody Owens out of his 'home' to attack him and finish the job that started with his murdered parents.  Coupled with stark illustrations that reminiscent of graphic novels, The Graveyard Book is children's storytelling in its best form.  It harks back to the Grimm's Fairy Tales, with darkish story lines; yet, Gaiman manages to keep the actions, dialogue and characters light, developing a sense of family and love in the cemetery and humor in the strange situation.  There is still action, which keeps the story going.  It is written beautifully, with the descriptions being succinct and the dialogue witty and filled with the heightened vocabulary readers have come to expect from Gaiman.

No matter your favorite genre, you cannot deny the exemplary vocabulary and prose that permeates Gaiman's work.  One of the best parts about reading his stories is that you are guaranteed to learn a word you did not previously know.  Gaiman makes writing seem easy.  The flow of the diction in his stories is lyrical and spell-binding.  Throughout all of his novels, comics, short stories, screenplays, etc., there is a sense of consistency.  One knows that when reading Gaiman, you are guaranteed a story that will be sharp witted, tight, informative descriptions, and excellent dialogue.  I have never read a Gaiman work that wandered or seemed lost in thought.  Every word he writes has a purpose and plays a part in the overall scheme of the story.  Whether the ending leaves you hanging or not, Gaiman's intended ending is always achieved.  If you are still thinking about the story days after you finished it, then the goal was achieved.

Courtesy of
What exactly does Gaiman mean to the literary world?  For starters, he is just the hero the book world needs.  He embraces change: this is evident in the dabbling in different genres, different audiences, different media, and embracing the social media world as a way to connect with his readers.  However, Gaiman also embodies what the book world also holds dear: a good story that will take you away from your world and into his.  He continues to write intoxicating books that transport readers into worlds of magic, morals, and the never ending fight between good and evil.  There is always a strange sense of justice in his stories- there is never a character who meets a fate that either the universe bestowed them with from their actions or a fate that they themselves purposely created. Gaiman believes in the power of words.  For evidence of this, you need not look any further than his own books.  Words are power, destiny, and a form of magic that a reader can make be whatever they want or need them to be.  This, in the end, is Gaiman's world: a world where words are power and can impact you in more ways than you know.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Art of a First Novel

Courtesy of
Literary critics are always looking for the next big novel; they're looking for the next Scarlet Letter, the next Great Expectations, the next To Kill a Mockingbird, even the next Harry Potter series.  Yet, it appears that critics are missing the point of literature.  They look for the weird factor, the shock factor in your face, the factor that makes a novel seem edgy and hip.  However, edgy is not always what a novel needs.  A classic is supposed to capture the feeling of the moment, to reveal to an audience a timeless concept, to resemble life and human error and triumph.  A masterpiece novel is supposed to make you think, to make you feel, to stay with you long after you have put the book down.  A reader will learn something without even realizing it; you will be slightly uncomfortable, but the pull of finishing the story is too great to ignore.  The Art of Fielding (2011) will make you slightly uncomfortable; but, in the end, it will make you think, it will make you feel, and you will not be able to put it down.  Rarely has a novel seemed so contrived, yet so beautiful.  It is difficult to classify The Art of Fielding into a genre; it mixes romance, drama, and baseball, which is the default Americana coming of age formula.  However, American author Chad Harbach manages to take this overdone motif and make it into something more.

The Art of Fielding, simply, is a story of self-discovery.  The main, twisted archetype is of self-discovery and the pains of trying to imagine yourself on a different life path.  The novel starts off with the audience meeting Henry Skirmshander, a poor, country kid who has an incredible talent for playing shortstop. He is recruited by (sheer luck) by Westish College's baseball captain, Mike Schwartz.  The Westish Harpooners flourish under Schwartz's lead and Skrimshander's brilliance.  The novel's main thread is about the, at times, parasitic, relationship between the two men.  Harbach does a wonderful job at contrasting the love and hate between the two; the reader can feel the adoring animosity between the two, the warring emotions of self-absorption and helping your friends.  Yet, just like in life, the story is not driven by the two alone.  Other characters come along, and their trials and triumphs are deeply intertwined with Henry and Mike, creating several threads of stories that weave into the culmination at the end.  The variety of characters, an estranged daughter, a lonely and conflicted college president, a confident lover, all collide on a path started by a single action of Henry's that changes all of theirs lives, good and bad.

The novel is written in a style that could be considered a near homage to baseball.  Baseball becomes another character in the novel, one that is lived for, revered, despised, and most of all, surviving.  The descriptions in the novel are sparsely written... unless its about the baseball games.  Then Harbach writes intricate, descriptive narratives about baseball, whether it be the practices or the games. Despite having the novel revolve around college baseball (something that most people do not experience intimately), Harbach manages to convey a story that is full of realistic human emotion and conflict.  Readers can easily relate to the characters; we have all been in a place of self-doubt, rebirth, rock bottom, and the hard journey to get back on your feet. Harbach propels the novel with realistic dialogue and mosaic character reflections.  His prose is elegant, but not highbrow. There is never a time where the reader is not learning something new about a character. This constant stream of revelations is at times overwhelming.  Yet, this in itself is reflective of life.  You cannot put life on hold because it is overwhelming; one must roll with the punches, just like the characters learn to do.
Author Chad Harbach

There was a lot of controversy from literary circles concerning this novel.  Some felt it had been too played up and received too much acclaim, that the accolades only stemmed from the fact that Harbach is a co-founder and editor of the literary magazine n+1.  Many criticized the perceived 'pointless' interactions between characters, saying they were not helpful to the plot and came off as almost purple prose-ish.  However, I do not buy into these arguments.  Many of the critical reviews harped on the fact that Harbach is a part of an elite literary circle, a fact that for some reason discredited him as an author to people.  Who he is as a person and an editor should not take away from this FANTASTIC novel.  It has all the elements of a classic: the emotions, the timeless struggle to be great, the sense of despondency and then triumph. Although perhaps not a masterpiece, The Art of Fielding should definitely be considered a great for this generation.  Harbach perfectly captured the sense of panic in college (and life) and worry of the future in all his characters, themes that definitely resonate with today's readers.  For a debut novel, The Art of Fielding is beautiful, haunting, and entertaining.    It is simply a story. The Art of Fielding, although revolving around baseball, is really all about living and how people have to make the choice to either embrace life and roll with it or be eaten alive by anxiety, pressure, and life itself.  And isn't that the story of life?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Into The Debate of "Into The Wild"

Courtesy of
In 1992, hikers found an emaciated body of a young man, huddled in a broken down bus.  In 1993, American author, Jon Krakauer, wrote about the man, Christopher McCandless, in a story for the magazine, Outside.  In 1997, Krakauer wrote a book, Into the Wild, detailing McCandless' life, adventure, and death.  In 2007, the highly anticipated movie version debuted.  A nonfiction account, Into the Wild, is now recommended reading both high schools and college; it has become the pinnacle of what it means to live life to the fullest. And now, 23 years after his death, the story of Chris McCandless in Into the Wild continues to enthrall, enrage, and captivate readers, inspiring fierce debates on freedom of spirit, the pressure of modern society, and the never-ending back and forth between responsibility to society and the timeless yearning for a greater meaning in life.  He was raised in an upper middle class (albeit dysfunctional) family on the East Coast; he was an Emory graduate, an athlete, a young man with the world at his feet.  Then, at 22, he donated all his savings (more than $20,000) to charity, bade his family goodbye, and then set off on a two year trek around the country, living with little more than a backpack and food and goods he worked for and bartered for, with the entire trip culminating in his lonely death in the Alaskan wilderness. His tragic demise only continued to add fuel to the roaring debate, whether or not he was reckless or actually achieved the ideal life, lived while adventuring for more.  

Courtesy of
To put it simply, Into the Wild is a biography.  It is written in a frank, straightforward manner.  There is no flowery language or special grammar tricks to make it stand out from a literary aspect.  Jon Krakauer was an assignment journalist for the nature magazine, Outside, at the time of Into the Wild; thus, his writing style is reflective of that background, with his books reading more as long articles and exposés rather than in-depth academic nonfiction.  This is not a book that gained acclaim from it's contribution to literary style; instead, Krakauer focuses on crafting an account that is not only highly engaging, but also makes the reader think.  Krakauer did his research: he tracked down people that McCandless had encountered throughout his journey, he did interviews with his family and friends that he left behind, and he attempted to follow the same routes that McCandless took in hopes of finding reasons why McCandless went where he did. Krakauer took care to document McCandless' travels, interactions, and actions as best as he could, allowing the reader to almost experience the journey as McCandless did. Krakauer's landscape descriptions are breath-taking, but the reader can always sense the underlying dangers in nature.  Krakauer, who is also an expert mountaineer, has a healthy sense of fear of nature and understands how quick it can kill you.  The entire novel has the fear of the elements hanging over it.

Yet, one pitfall of the novel is the lack of detail in McCandless' personal life, details that Krakauer admits haunted McCandless and probably played a large part in driving him to abandon modern society.  Whereas family drama had the potential to take focus away from the journey, exploring the motives, including the severely flawed McCandless family, would have enlightened the reader to McCandless' thought process.  It wasn't until more than a decade after the book publication that the revelation emerged from McCandless' sister that Krakauer was honoring his promise to her to not reveal damning family problems.  This knowledge almost ends up saying more about the family and about McCandless' antagonism towards his family than anything Krakauer could have written.  However, never does Krakauer allow drama to take attention away from McCandless and his philosophy.  He does a noble job of balancing McCandless' inspiring journey and thoughts and the glaring mistakes that he made that led to his death; this writing approach contributes to the uncertainty of the entire journey and whether or not it was worth it in the end to McCandless.

In spite of the enormous amount of speculation, fact gathering, and talk concerning McCandless, it is difficult to figure out how to unpack the story of Chris McCandless. He wrote in his journal that he was driven by anti-materialism and a blossoming sense of anti-society leanings; he endeavored to achieve a higher sense of life and to commune with nature on an almost religious level.  This sense of altruism and his death has sparked two decades of controversy, reverence from a cult-like following of sojourners, faithful to McCandless' ideas and spirit of wandering, and anger from Alaskans and naturists who consider McCandless to be reckless in his endeavor and disrespectful to the force of nature in his naivety about living off the land.  Since the publication of the book, thousands of people have been inspired by McCandless' belief in a society free of stress and the belief that life should be lived to be an adventurer.  On the flip side, hundreds of those people have tried to make the Alaskan trek to the bus in which McCandless died in, resulting in millions of taxpayers' dollars worth of rescues and several deaths.  Educators, parents, police, park rangers, doctors, scientists, the McCandless family, even Krakauer himself have all warned about the dangers of making the trek, stating that even expert naturists struggle with the trail to the bus.  However, this has not scared the hundreds of people who make the trip every year.  They connect with the sense of wanderlust McCandless embodied and they admire the tenacity he had that pushed him to Alaska.  They do not care of the cost, even if it means their lives. This faithful adherence to trying to live a life unbound by societal constraints is noble; however, the question is at what point does noble translate to shortsightedness?  This is the ultimate question that Krakauer poses and is the ultimate take away for the reader to consider.  This is a book that will stay with you; McCandless and his conviction that modern society had taken the joy and adventure out of life will stay with you, no matter what side of the debate you stand.

Chris McCandless
Every generation has a book that divides them.  It causes frenzied debate, with each side convinced that they are right and that the other side is delusional.  These books become the Slaughterhouse-Five, the Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye of literary history; you either love it or hate it and no matter what, the debate continues on about the actions of the characters, the meaning behind the story, and what the author's aim really was.  Into the Wild is possibly one of the most haunting books you will ever read.  It is hard to ignore the impact of this You cannot help but be drawn into McCandless' idealism; his hopes and dreams for the world are nonsensical, Despite being almost 18 years old, the book continues to inspire and at the same time, draw skepticism.  The reader cannot help but wonder the degree of truth in McCandless' crusade and also the degree of absurdity.  Into the Wild will become a book that reflects the overall divide in society.  The debate will roar on and the story of Chris McCandless, an adventurer and a dreamer, will continue to inspire the dreamers and exasperate the pragmatists.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Almost Real Look At "Almost Famous Women"

Courtesy of
There is a subtle art to masterfully writing a collection of short stories.  You have to pack background stories, character development, dialogue, a story arc, and some type of ending all in 20,000 words or less.  Some people succeed at it; others do not.  Make that arduous task even more daunting by throwing in some little known historical figures and you have Almost Famous Women.  The 2015 release by American author, Megan Mayhew Bergman, is a collection of thirteen fictional stories about real women who only skirted on the edges of fame.  These women loved, mourned, won, lost, lived, and died; however, almost all strove for recognition that would never fully materialize. Whereas most historical figures in fiction are poorly written or catastrophically caricatured, the women in these stories are masterfully written.  The reader will glimpse the fictitious lives of women from various points of view; from a nurse, a lover, a maid, a neighbor, a person who has contact with the woman, but does not really know her.  Bergman does not make any pretenses about actually knowing what these women thought or felt; instead, she crafts her stories through the public perception of these women, making them even more enigmatic than they already all.

There is a definite edginess to Almost Famous Women.  Bergman does not shy away from the rumors/facts of selfishness, anger, sexual deviance, promiscuity, rebellion, history, and idiosyncrasies of the women.  Bergman has done her research; each story will have the reader reaching for the internet to research these women and the ancillary characters in their lives.  There is a certain refreshing quality about Bergman's writing style; she is stark without being offensive and sensitive without being sappy.  She has the ability to weave a tale that is overabundant with information, emotions, and suspense by utilizing only minimal words.  Bergman's greatest gift, perhaps, is her use of dialogue to propel the stories forward.  The dialogue is a standard amount for a short story; however, the crafting of the dialogue reveals so much in so little.  The settings also help to formulate stories in which immense pain, joy, and self-reflection happen; the settings could almost be consider another character.  So much is revealed in these settings, whether it be an island, a town, or a cluttered, long-ignored room of a dying prima donna.  There is pain, love, life, and death in these stories, so much so that the reader will almost forget that they are reading fictional accounts.
Author Megan Mayhew Bergman

Read it!  You will discover the failed genius of Dolly Wilde, the secrecy of Allegra Byron, the flamboyancy of Joe Carstairs, Butterfly McQueen's rebellion, and who exactly was Tiny Davis.   These were real women.  They were ahead of their times, tortured by their blossoming genius, held down by society's rules.  What Almost Famous Women does is capture the essence of being a woman who does not fit society's mold.  These stories are not preachy or driving home a feminist message.  However, they are feminist in the way that these women are driven to prove themselves in a world that does not understand them, thus they become more and more outrageous until they fail completely.  These are the forgotten women, the women that were either driven out of society for their behaviors or cast aside because they were not what society wanted to see.  Bergman does a breathtakingly beautiful job at reviving these women.  She gives them emotions, feelings, power, and redemption from their mistakes. She forgives them for their sins and makes them people again; during their lives, maybe the expectations were too high.  Maybe, through Bergman, some of these women can receive the acceptance they had craved so badly.  

Thursday, March 5, 2015

What Remained Was A "Dead Wake"...

Ever heard of the Lusitania? How about it's overarching historical significance?  Or just the fact that 1,198 lives were lost during the sinking? Eventually overshadowed by the infamous sinking of the Titanic and by World War I which was just starting to pick up steam during the same time period, the sinking of the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania, was a catalyst event in the war.  Nonetheless, due to exaggerated propaganda accounts of the event, the USA's eventual entrance into the war,and the stronger disaster legacy of the Titanic, the true story Lusitania has faded into history, earning just a paragraph or two in most historical account of World War I.  However, the Lusitania tragedy means so much more to history: it was the turning point in the United States' attitude towards the conflict and introduced a new type of subterfuge warfare to the spotlight: the submarine, perfected by the Germans and called the U-boat.  2015 marks 100 years since the sinking: 2015 also marks the debut of Dead Wake, the newest book from American author, Erik Larson.

For those who do know about the Lusitania, you know that it sank on 7 May 1915, after being struck by a German U-boat's torpedo.  The victims, which consisted of an unusual amount of children and infants for a voyage, were a variety of nationalities.  This included Americans.  At the time, the US was still neutral in World War I.  However, the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of American lives put the US on a path that would lead to their joining the war in 1917.  The political scenes in Germany, Britain, and the US were tense, angry, and bound to erupt.  Which they did.  This is the part of the tragedy that most history books focus on.  However, in Dead Wake, Larson explores the event from the beginning.  He traces the history of the Lusitania, while exploring the parallel history of the world and the boiling tensions that would erupt into a full scale world war.  Reading Dead Wake, one will find stories of cowardice and heroism; there are descriptions of historical fact, along with eyewitness and news accounts.  Like all of Larson's other books, by the time a reader is finished, they are thoroughly well versed and highly engrossed in the subject matter.

Courtesy of
Larson's acclaim as an author comes from his master storytelling talent: he has perfected the ability to make nonfiction (usually a genre viewed as academic and boring) come alive and become almost fiction-like in it's telling. Author of the highly successfully and critically acclaimed The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) and In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011), Larson has done it again.  He has taken another obscure historical event (the obscure and peculiar are his specialties)and turned it into a gripping thriller, one that weaves in fact, scandal, violence, love, heroics, and politics, only to create an account so spectacular the reader will want more.  Larson is a perfectionist in the best and worst senses of the word.  Readers can be assured that he has fact checked and researched each and every solitary detail throughout each book.  He has the uncanny ability to research things down to the exact detail; however, instead of becoming tedious as in most nonfiction, the details only enhance the story, lending it beautiful descriptions and settings that a reader can get lost in. The perfection can be bad though because most nonfiction books are now ruined for you.  Larson has changed the nonfiction game; his books can be understood and enjoyed by people who do not know much about the subject or about history or nonfiction at all.

Erik Larson also is a skillful historian; he is able to put into words the complex and often overwhelming political happenings of the particular time period in question.  This almost on-the-spot recounting is wonderful and educational. Yet, it can be terrible as it leaves the reader constantly reaching for Google to further investigate into situations that Larson writes about! The political intrigue of the book is possibly the most fascinating part.  The constant back and forth between different nations is suspenseful. Larson deftly illustrates how the strain from the seemingly endless war and the rapidly changing methods of warfare caused all governments to be divided.  On one hand, there are those who are skeptical of the new methods of warfare, namely the submarine.  They do not believe that subs can do any large-scale damage.  On the other are those are painfully aware of what the introduction of submarines will do to modern warfare.  This back and forth heightens the tension and suspense- all while the telling of the voyage itself is interspersed throughout the book-  that leads to the event itself.

I know what you are thinking: you do not like nonfiction and history was and always will be boring. This is most definitely NOT the case in Erik Larson's books.  He has the exceptional ability to make history relevant and exciting, to make even the most mundane details seem important and interesting. This is history at it's best.  It's history stripped down of all the monotony and dull repetition that plagues history classes.  This is history how it really was: uncertain, intriguing, devastating, and hopeful.  Dead Wake and, honestly, any of Larson's other books, are more than worth the read.

Dead Wake is available for library check-out 
and personal purchase 10 March 2015.

Special thanks to Crown Publishing Group and Erik Larson for my ARC!  

Monday, March 2, 2015

Desert Noir

Courtesy of
There is something haunting about the American Southwest.  It has a landscape that is unrivaled in the world; vast rugged deserts, with mountains, sparse vegetation, and incredible skylines that are famous worldwide.  The landscape is only added to by the people that inhabit the area; the various Native American tribes that live there have been romanticized by history, thus giving their ancestral homelands an aura of mysticism and endurance that does not exactly apply to modern times.  It is this setting in which author CB McKenzie set his first novel, Bad Country.  

Winner of the Tony Hillerman Award for best fiction set in the American Southwest, Bad Country combines several different types of mystery and suspense, weaving two different problems into each other.  Using elements of noir, action, western, and classic mystery genres, McKenzie manages to have two different mysteries going at once.  The mysteries themselves are also unique in style.  One is a run-of-the-mill serial killer, which seems racially fueled; however, the issue becomes much larger than what it appears and much more sinister and desperate.  The other is a brutal murder, which seems to stem from a mix of family secrets, angst, and revenge.  In both issues, McKenzie explores the racial tensions of the American Southwest today; tensions often boil over from disputes between Caucasians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, leading to murder, gangs, and cities divided along racial lines.  All racial groups are captured perfectly and distinctly; these are not caricatures of racial groups, but based off McKenzie's relationships and interactions with different people from his time spent there.  McKenzie also uses racial tension to explore the income gap in the American Southwest, a problem that has plagued the area for decades.  The poverty in the area seems to contribute to both crimes, but contributes to both so differently that it hardly seems like the same issue. McKenzie, despite being in a long line of authors writing about the American Southwest, manages to weave all the social issues into the story without seeming preachy or biased.  There is no guilt complex associated with the setting of the novel; McKenzie does not point fingers in any direction for the plight of the area.  Instead, he expounds that the problems surrounding the American Southwest is EVERYONE's fault. Both crimes are intricately tied to a wide range of characters, varying in sex, race, and age.  This alone makes the book a must-read.

McKenzie adds to the racial mix by having a racially ambiguous protagonist, Rodeo Garnet, who is the other reason to read the novel.  Rodeo is a beautiful mix of the mythos of the American Southwest and of  the actual version of today's tech savvy Native American; he uses the internet to research, but at the same time, has the ability to survive in the rugged landscape.  He is painfully self-aware, yet manages to use that to his advantage.  He essentially is the best type of renegade detective, working outside the system and within his own networks to solve seemingly impossible crimes. His past sparingly haunts him, yet when the full-force of memory hits him, Rodeo uses the emotions to aid to his investigations.

Courtesy of
Rated as one of the top mystery novels of 2014, Bad Country takes a departure from the usual mystery formats concerning Native American characters; McKenzie's mystery does not involve Native American culture, artifacts, or tribal disputes.  Instead, McKenzie focused his novel purely on the human element of crime and did not let the setting of the novel dictate the nature of the mystery or the story in general. There is no message of Native American victimization, no preaching on the attempted survival of the culture, all messages that usually pervade Native American fiction.  However, McKenzie does not shy away from the poverty, despair, and tension of the area.  He embraces it and has it play a large part in both crimes.  The social issues make the novel more dramatic, more complex, and more heartbreaking.  Bad Country will leave you pondering, anxious, and more than satisfied.