Friday, March 2, 2018

All Broken Up

When my brother and I were in elementary school, my parents decided to drive us from Dallas to Disneyland. Among the notable places we visited along the way was the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. 

Apart from vague memories of a mock shootout and some knowledge of the litany of familiar names from movies and TV westerns, I wasn’t as familiar with the history of the characters. I was curious, then, to learn more about Doc Holliday when I picked up the novel Doc by Maria Doria Russell for this week’s reading challenge – a western.

The book opens like a biography. We learn about Holliday’s childhood and follow him from his home in Georgia to Texas (a harrowing journey in the late 1800s). I was amazed to discover that Holliday had a dental practice in Dallas (56 Elm Street if you’re ever in the neighborhood).

As he draws closer to Dodge City, the action picks up as Russell introduces the key players of the boom town:  the law officers, cowboys, and entrepreneurs. A young boy’s murder even draws out the local Jesuits (a Russell signature).

Befriended by the Earp brothers, Doc becomes embroiled in the politics and power plays of the bustling city. The brothers even manage to help drum up some business for his fledgling dental practice. However, suffering from tuberculosis, Doc’s every waking moment seems to be racked with pain.  He finds some solace at the card table, and the bottomless glass of bourbon, but can never seem to get ahead. Even in love, his on-again/off-again partner Kate, accomplished in Latin and bed, packs her bags more than once.

As the novel ends, Doc and Kate have received a letter inviting them to move West. Russell chooses not to dramatize the famous fight, but focuses the last chapter on Kate’s memory of how events played out. It’s satisfyingly sad.

Friday, February 16, 2018

"I don't need your help, OKAY"

Any mother of teenager might recognize this quote. And anyone who's survived the teen years themselves may recognize the poetic beauty of having "shape shifting" be a teen villain's super power. 

This week’s challenge was to read a comic written and drawn by the same personOne look at the book flap of Nimona by Noelle Stevenson - “Nemesis! Dragons! Science! Symbolism!”- and I was sold.

The comic begins when shape shifter Nimona shows up on Ballister Blackheart’s doorstep, announcing her intent to be his new sidekick. Together they will plot evil plans and defeat his nemesis/romantic interest Goldenloin.  

At first glance Nimona is just like any other teen, sipping soda while hoisting herself onto the kitchen counter. She sounds like a teen, her word balloons filled  with reluctant “fiiiine”s  and teasing “you liiiike me”s.

However, in monochromatic flashbacks, Stevenson unveils a dark past of tragedy and abuse. Nimona’s rebellion is trying to convince society that she’s not the tortured creature they make her out to be. And in this, she’s also like any other teen.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Devil in a Blue Dress

I love a good period-mystery. The intrigue, the clues, the lipstick. Immersed in a plethora of British mysteries lately (like this one and this one), I decided to read something set on this side of the pond for this week’s challenge.

The task: read a classic of genre fiction. So I turned to one of my favorite mystery writers – Walter Mosley. It’s been years since I sat down with one of his Easy Rawlins’ detective stories. When I picked up Devil in a Blue Dress, I had forgotten how hard it is to put down.

From the first page, Mosley not only sets the scene but immerses the reader in the middle of post-WWII Los Angeles. Easy Rawlins is minding his own business, hanging out in Joppy’s bar, wondering how he’s going to make his house payment. Joppy introduces him to a shady character named Albright who offers him a job. All Easy has to do is find a young woman named Daphne Monet. Unlike his name, the job is anything but.

It’s a world of violence, racism, hatred, and two-timing men not much different than our own. Through it all, Easy hears a steady voice that comes to him at his worst moments, when all he wants to do is run. As he says, “The voice is hard. It never cares if I’m scared or in danger. It just looks at all the facts and tells me what I need to do.”

And he gets it done. 

Friday, January 26, 2018

Sky Watching

Since the forecast for the next six days includes rain, I’ll have plenty of time to study the shape of raindrops. Hint: the picture to the right is not upside down.

The true shape of rain is just one in a deluge of facts on the subject read for this week’s challenge – a book about nature.

From human migration, to rain in religion, the origin of weather reports and keeping dry, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett includes story after story that will hydrate your small talk for weeks.

It also inspired me to reminisce about my favorite meteorologist and check out a new blog.

And it may even compel me to set aside the books on our next long weekend and make the four-hour drive here to marvel at its fertility rather than grumble at its nuisance. 

Friday, January 19, 2018

Pioneer Girl

 Whichever comes first, the apocalypse or a North Korean missile attack, the first thing that goes into the survival kit is our set of Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. From how to butcher a pig to entertaining one’s children without electricity, the books are quintessentially survival manuals.

In the meantime, I will distract myself from such likelihoods possibilities by checking off the boxes on this year’s Read Harder Challenge. Published posthumously in 2014, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (edited by Pamela Smith Hill) meets the first challenge.

Ironically, since this year’s challenge is sponsored by Libby (an ereader mascot/app), this hardcover book is the size of a phone book. Well-worth hauling home in person from the library, Wilder’s autobiography is enriched by pages (and pages) of annotations, illustrations, photographs, and maps.

Many of the stories included in Pioneer Girl will be familiar to readers of the Little House series. Written around 1930, the book is a chronicle (originally filling six Big Chief tablets) of Wilder’s life starting from when she was two until she was 18. Even though the stories are familiar, Hill argues that this version provides the reader with access to the “intimate, conversational, and unguarded” perspective of Wilder herself.

However, what I found even more interesting was the introduction – the backstory – of how Wilder came to be the writer we all revere today.  Hill chronicles the writing career (and publishing connections) of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Since Lane and her parents lived on adjacent properties in the Missouri Ozarks, Lane was able to serve as editor, and critic, for her mother’s writing projects.

With an eye on the marketability of her writing, Lane was accustomed to fictionalizing true stories. Therefore, one version of Pioneer Girl includes an account of the Ingalls’ encounter with a family of mass murderers on the Kansas frontier.  Although such a family existed, they would not have crossed paths with the Ingalls. Despite the embellishments, this version never found a publisher. Instead, Wilder was encouraged to take the stories she wrote for Pioneer Girl and adapt them for a juvenile audience.Thus, the book we know as Little House in the Big Woods was accepted by Knopf in 1931. 

The rest is history. And possibly kindling if necessary. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

“Youth isn't wasted on the young, literature is.”

Quirky literature, perhaps more than most. This past year has been light on quirky reads. I’ve expanded the list to include a few that evoke the peculiar rather than the zany.

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
“You need a cemetery to go through life.”

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
“Sometimes just explaining your predicament--to a bartender, a priest, the old woman in a shift and flip-flops cleaning the lint traps in the Laundromat dryers--is all it takes to see a way out of it.”

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
“It amazed Izzy the way the children rushed through so many complicated emotions without space between each one. Everything rose so quickly to the surface and then subsided, like firecrackers, and what had originally been so jarring to her, their unguarded emotion, now filled her with great comfort, that anything, no matter what it was, would eventually give way to something else.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon . . . is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore
“The sense of falling did not touch her, not as long as her body was between the hands of this boy who felt steadier in the air than on the ground.”

Friday, December 29, 2017

Are ye not struck with shame and mortification?

With two days to spare, I checked off #17 of the 2017 Read Harder Reading Challenge – read a classic by an author of color – with Sold as a Slave by Olaudah Equiano. 

This short memoir, an excerpt from a longer work published in 1789 called The Interesting Narrative, recalls Equiano’s capture in Africa, separation from his sister, and service –as a slave – in the royal navy, and treatment under various owners. He writes, “Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.”

The mature tone of the narrative makes the reader forget that at the time these events take place the writer is not yet 12 years old. Remarkable is the number of times he mentions a kindness of his masters. After converting to Christianity in his later years, he seems truly puzzled that any man could think that holding himself above another was what God intended.

Tragically, this practice persists today. Kevin Bales in his TED talk How to combat modern slavery tells us this:

“The average price of a human being today, around the world, is about 90 dollars. They are more expensive in places like North America. Slaves cost between 3,000 to 8,000 dollars in North America, but I could take you places in India or Nepal where human beings can be acquired for five or 10 dollars. They key here is that people have ceased to be that capital purchase item and become like Styrofoam cups. You buy them cheaply, you use them, you crumple them up, and then when you're done with them you just throw them away.”

Read more in Bales’ book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World.

Is your New Year’s Resolution to read more? Join me in the 2018 reading challenge.