Archive for March, 2012

No Country For Old Men / Cormac McCarthy

This novel is set on the frontier between Texas and Mexico, a region where Sheriff Ed Tom Bell has been a long-time peacekeeper.  But times are changing; drug smuggling has resulted in an outbreak of unprecedented violence and mayhem.  As the bodies pile up, Bell feels helpless and outgunned.  He has begun to question his own usefulness as crime runs rampant.  The killings he is currently investigating involve a group of drug runners slain near the Rio Grande.  While a load of heroin was found in their vehicles, more than $2 million in cash is missing.  Before the police arrive on the scene, Llewelyn Moss, a local hunting antelope, had stumbled upon the bloody shootout.  He decides to hike the money out even though he knows somebody will come looking for it.  That someone is Anton Chigurth, a true psychopath who kills anyone that gets in his way and takes pleasure doing so.  Bell represents the book’s moral center, Moss the common workingman who wants a better life for his family, and Chigurth the evil that is stalking this region of the country.  McCarthy is a fabulous writer and his prose is true delight to read.  He brings the badlands of Texas and northern Mexico vividly to life on the page.  While the action is fast paced, he knows the importance of stepping back to reflect on good and evil and matters of the spirit.  There is violence to be sure, but McCarthy handles it well, conveying its horror without wallowing in the bloodshed.  Even for those who have seen the Coen brothers’ excellent movie version of this book, there is a depth here that no film can adequately capture.  This harrowing story is a meditation on what we have become as  nation because of the drug wars and carries with it an extraordinary resonance.

The Rabbi’s Cat / Joann Sfar

Sfar is a well-known French comic artist and has written or collaborated on over one hundred books for adults and children.  The Rabbi’s Cat is a two-volume graphic novel that definitely falls on the “adult” side of the spectrum.  It is the story of a rabbi, his daughter, and their talking cat.  The nameless cat gains the ability to speak when he eats the family parrot and then denies having done so.  It turns out he is a wisecracking philosopher who is brutally honest, yet never mean spirited.  Set in Algeria in the 1930s, this backdrop allows Sfar to flood the story’s frames with the rich colors and textures of that country’s Jewish community.  The vibrant world he presents shows a time and place where Jews and Arabs peacefully coexisted.  In Volume 1, the cat is determined to become Jewish, study the kabbalah, and have a Bar Mitzvah.  While Volume 1 is a complete story, Volume 2 does not hold together nearly as well.  It is a collection of different adventures that take the rabbi, the cat, and friends deep into the heart of Africa.  Even the rabbi does not seem the person he was in the earlier volume.  Fortunately, the cat’s scathing humor remains consistent throughout.  So too the book’s use of bright and dark colors, providing a rich feast for the eye.  Even though the story ultimately runs out steam before its conclusion, the drawings more than make up for this minor disappointment.


Waist deep and drifting,
near has become far.
Even the barn
is further away.
No school yesterday.
No church tomorrow.
It will be next week
before you sight a plow.
As the dark hardens
into crystallized silence,
even God seems far.
But think again.
With fireplace blazing,
root cellar full,
your family isn’t alone.
Tonight, this
home’s Guardian Angel
is snowbound too.


The dark whispers
into the ear of the sky and
snowy mountains
to the east dematerialize.
But to the west,
enkindled twilight defies
and holds at bay
a crescent moon’s approach.
For a moment,
its skyline seems alive,
inhabited with
the same spirits children
use to breathe
life into a stuffed doll.
But then its
sheen hardens and dulls;
make believe
becomes inanimate again.
That horizon, too,
coalesces with the dark’s
whispered lullaby.

My American Unhappiness / Dean Bakopoulos

Zeke Pappas is thirty-three years old, single, and the director of the Greater Midwestern Humanities Initiative (GMHI).  GMHI is a federally funded program designed to increase public literacy and foster community appreciation of the humanities.  The program came into being with backing from a Republican congressman and a local businessman.  But it is nine years later, 2008, and allocated funds for the Institute are running out, the economy is beginning to tank, and both of its main sponsors seem to be the target of a federal corruption investigation.  But Zeke is oblivious to the fact he may soon be unemployed.  Instead, he is obsessed with his pet project, “The Inventory of American Unhappiness.”  For a number of years he has going all around the county (and on a Web page) asking people just one question, “Why are you so unhappy?”  Zeke’s mother has custody of two orphaned nieces and the three of them live in his house.  Bad news arrives when his mother learns she has cancer and only a short time to live.  She also informs Zeke that custody of the twin girls will go to another relative unless he is married at the time of her death.  Thus begins his frantic search to find a mate in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.  He identifies a number of possible prospects: a newly divorced neighbor, a coffeehouse barista, his administrative assistant, and aiming high, the film director Sofia Coppola.  Zeke is a likeable man with a generous heart, yet he always seems to say or do the wrong thing, and his misadventures make for comic reading.  While he drinks too much and has a tendency to fall in love with every woman he meets, the reader can’t help but root for him through every twisted predicament he finds himself in.  It did get a bit too much though as I neared the novel’s end.  Fortunately, Bakopoulos recovers and provides the perfect ending for this book.  The fact the story is set in the town I live in added to the story’s charm for me.  Ultimately, Zeke is the perfect poster boy for his pet project that documents the emptiness at the heart of American life.


In the beginning, with all that
it was a seven-day workweek.
There were storms
of epic proportion to conjure
out of the seas.
The sun’s thermostat always
out of whack.
Too many color choices to
sort through.
Grumbling volcanoes to tame
and whisper asleep.
Grass to coax from the cracks.
Having not yet
decided should there be one
moon or two.
With the periodic table still
only half-written.
The debate over locomotion:
fins, wings, or feet.
In the beginning, there were
no weekends.
Not with seasons to juggle,
forests to groom,
and continents to separate.
No wonder
after the first billion years
of hard work,
the rest was left to evolution.

The Hours / Michael Cunningham

The Hours opens with a recounting of Virginia Woolf’s last days before her suicide in 1941.  It then moves backwards and forwards.  The reader is transported back to 1923 when Woolf is living in Richmond and writing Mrs. Dalloway.  It also jumps ahead in the twentieth century to tell the stories of two more modern American women.  One is Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor who lives in New York City with her partner Sally during the late 1990s.  When first introduced, she is on the way to buy flowers for a party she is throwing for her close friend, Michael, a poet with AIDS who has just won a major literary prize.  The other is Laura Brown, a housewife living in post-World War II California.  A stay-at-home mother of one and pregnant with her second child, Laura is going a bit mad in a stifling marriage.  As the novel jump-cuts between these three women, Cunningham riffs big time on Mrs. Dalloway  to present “the hours” of a single day in their lifes.  Each chapter contains echoes of Woolf’s book.  It is a bold move for the author to make, ripping off a classic and also creating a fictional Virginia Woolf.  But he succeeds in spades, creating a richly textured work that I found quite moving.  In fact, having read Mrs. Dalloway,  I was more impressed with Cunningham’s novel than I was with Woolf’s presentation of a day in the life.
I also recommend the 2002 movie adaptation of The Hours starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Moore.

Forever After Land

Like Dorothy’s farmhouse
on the Kansas
prairies,  the one that
went to Oz
and back, this old
mansion got
carried away, too.
Once out in
the countryside, with
stable and
orchard, time was the
whirlwind re-
sponsible for dropping
the city around
what’s left.  Hurrying
for the Emerald
Suburbs now, thinking
there is no
place like home, tired
commuters speed
past without a glance.


I envy my wife
when she lifts a wineglass
and deeply inhales
its intoxicating bouquet.

A priest engulfed in
the sweet stink of incense
as he swings
his censer before Vespers.

That neighbor
who takes for granted
the aromatic
mustiness of a closet.

An entire city
throwing open a window
one fine spring day
to smell God in the air.

The sweaty
laborer returning home
fully aware of
his body’s pungency.

Every nose that
is capable of wrinkling
an alert when
confronted by the toxic.

A 30% Chance

Suddenly awake.  What
was that sound?
You wonder.  Hearing
it again now.
Mouse.  Spider.  Cock-
roach.  All
scurry through your
mind at first.
Until fully attentive,
you realize,
whatever it is, is out-
side, not in.
Getting up finally to
investigate, you
turn on the garage
light and see,
scampering back into
the dark wind,
a 30% chance of snow.


(Life.)  Like chasing
a bus after it has pulled away:
Sometimes you slip
and fall (usually you just run
out of breath).
Sometimes you do not have the
correct change even
if you do catch it.  Sometimes
the driver sees you
(usually they pretend not to).
Some days you
wonder why you bother at all.
Most times though,
there you are, already on the
bus, watching some
poor fool run out of optimism,
half a block back.

The Man Who Shot The Man Who Shot Lincoln : And 44 Other Forgotten Figures In History / Graeme Donald

There is nothing artsy about this book, it will never make anyone’s “best of” lists.  It is a “meat and potatoes” kind of work.  Donald sets out to uncover those forgotten individuals buried in the footnotes of historical textbooks.  People whose actions changed the course of history in some way.  The forty-five men and women profiled are both heroes and rogues, but fascinating figures all.  Even though I was a history major in college, most of them were unknown to me.  A good many played some role in World War II, although Donald does not limit himself to that period solely.  He is by no means a great writer, the emphasis is on telling a good story and uncovering the true facts behind the accepted truth.  These stories are the kind that readers will find themselves talking about the next day at work.  That is praise enough for any book, artsy or not.

Reservation blues / Sherman Alexi.

When this debut novel was published in 1995, Alexi was already a well respected short story writer and poet.  A member of the Spokane Indian tribe, his stories had documented the bitter reality of Native American life on the fringes of American society.  He continues that theme here, taking the reader into the littered landscape of the Spokane Indian reservation.  At the start of the novel, legendary bluesman Robert Johnson appears on the reservation, in flight from the devil and seeking to reclaim his soul.  Thomas-Builds-the-Fire directs Johnson to go visit Big Mama, a powerful mystic living in the area.  Thomas is a gentle young man known for his storytelling, even if few seem willing to listen.  In thanks, Johnson gives Thomas his guitar.  Soon falling under the spell of this magical instrument, Thomas gathers together other misfits like himself to form a band called Coyote Springs.  This group embarks on a musical odyssey that takes them from reservation bars to small-town taverns, from Seattle to New York City and the possibility of a record contract.  The story is comical, magical, and ultimately tragic as the group is unable to escape the effects of growing up in families broken by poverty and alcoholism.  There is also a bittersweet redemption of a sort as Thomas-Builds-the-Fire takes his broken dreams and finally ventures into an unknown world off the reservation.  Even so, it is clear the “wild horses” of the past will always follow him wherever he goes.  This novel proves that all the early hype about Alexi was fully justified.

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius / Dave Eggers.

As its title indicates, this coming of age memoir does not believe modesty is the best policy.  While poking fun at his own ego, it is clear Eggers means to write a book that lives up to its own hype.  Amazingly, he comes close to achieving this goal.  His life story is often funny, and certainly heartbreaking, too.  Unfortunately, while a gifted author, his prose is staggeringly overwritten at times.  Eggers is in his early twenties when in the space of five weeks he loses both of his parents to cancer and becomes the guardian of his eight-year-old brother.  Moving from a Chicago suburb to southern California, he takes his inheritance and invests it in a new magazine meant to captivate and inspire the 1990s MTV generation.

On the book’s cover is the phrase “based on a true story.”  While the story is broadly factual, it has certainly been enhanced.  Much of the dialogue sounds “written” rather than “transcribed.”  Self-ironic throughout, Eggers is able to laugh at himself while remaining deadly serious, too.  It is quite the feat and will charm many readers.  So too will its story of family loss and rebirth from the ashes.  I came away with mixed feelings, often dazzled by his prose and insights, yet put off by the self-centeredness of it all.  For a debut work, it heralds a talent blessed with genius and someone who can only get better with the humbling influences of maturity.