Wednesday, December 28, 2016


            Toni Morrison first landed on my radar when Ta-Nehisi Coates included a quote by her on the cover of Between the World and Me. As an author, Morrison does not shy from slapping you in the face with racial commentary. Her most notable novel, Beloved*, earned her the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and she continues to be a booming voice in discussions regarding the disenfranchisement of black America. 

            Beloved tackles the topic of slavery, couched in creative storytelling. The plot is based on a historically famous moment of infanticide. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that slaves who escaped to free states could be seized by their previous masters and returned to captivity. When Kentucky plantation owners apprehended former slave Margaret Garner in Ohio in 1856, Margaret chose to murder her own daughter rather than give her back over to slavery.

            Morrison, inspired by the ferocity of Margaret’s love for her child as well as the moral contentiousness of her actions, adapts the event into a fictional story. In order to effectively hone in on the psychological trauma of slavery, Morrison considers the killing from multiple perspectives, including the mother, the community, the other siblings, and the dead daughter herself in the form of a ghost. The result is a chilling account of a brutal action born of an even more brutal and murderous institution.

            I appreciate Morrison’s thoughtful take on a terrible history that I can’t fully comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of her writing style, and I had quite a bit of trouble navigating a sense of place within the novel. She jumps around between past, present, future, death, life, imagination, and spoken word. Additionally, she jumps around between the minds of each main character. I spent most of the time trying to orient myself to the speaker/context, and too little time grasping the intended message.

            Morrison is a gifted poet, and her writing contains a rawness fitting of a population that was forced to remain vulnerable even in their legal “freedom”. When I wasn’t distracted by the jerking back and forth between surrealism, reality, and stream of consciousness, I considered her very talented. After the negatives balance the positives, Beloved levels out at 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Random House, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Dharma Bums

I didn’t enjoy On the Road, because Kerouac is a misogynistic asshole, and I have difficulty separating his prose from his subject. He published The Dharma Bums* a year later, in 1958, and the improvement is staggering for a number of reasons.

In typical Kerouac fashion, The Dharma Bums is a semi-fictional story, and the main character (Ray Smith) is based on himself. Through Smith, we see Kerouac explore what Zen Buddhism means for him. Compared to On the Road, He comes to similar conclusions about the meaning of life and how he should respond to that truth, but the Buddhist lens leads to an important caveat: you can do whatever you want, but you should always be kind. 

His kindness and generosity lend to an optimistic tone throughout. Even the way he describes food is upbeat (basic meals are considered the most delicious of all time). His friend group is encouraging and communally oriented, which helps Kerouac on his journey to discover how to live the best life. Another main character in the book—Japhy Ryder, based on poet Gary Snyder—epitomizes the charitable Buddha. Smith (Kerouac) looks up to Ryder (Snyder), and the majority of The Dharma Bums details Smith’s outdoor hikes and mountain climbing, all inspired by Ryder.

Why all the outdoorsiness? According to Kerouac, dharma bums are “rucksack wanderers…refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn’t want anyway” (Kerouac, 83). Kerouac is notoriously adventurous. He lives wildly and spontaneously, hitchhiking all across America dozens of times. A key component of his Buddhism is simplicity---and what’s simpler than having virtually no possessions and living off of the land? He is truly in the land of the free. He has a zest for life unquenchable by conventional standards, and he is happier in a sleeping bag at the base of a mountain than in a bed.

This book makes me happy to be alive, and I finally understand why people love Kerouac. He has a childlike receptivity to the world, constantly open to new experiences. He makes being poor look glamorous because he is rich in spirit. He writes in a goofy, strangely descriptive, stream-of-consciousness style that more accurately expresses his joy than if he had written cautiously. He just wants to “ornament this world with [his] sincerity” (Kerouac, 14).

          Overall, I think that the writing skill and content of The Dharma Bums is an upgrade from the novel that put Kerouac on the map. In On the Road, women are often caught in the crosshairs of his escapades. In Dharma Bums, there are traces of misogyny, but mostly, we witness Kerouac’s moral trajectory advance in a positive direction. I never had a problem with his rowdiness—and that’s definitely still present, as when he and his friends perform Buddhist Yab-Yum rituals, which are actually orgies with a spiritual twist. But The Dharma Bums reveals a Kerouac who is equally ravenous, but less ignorant of the mess his rampages leave behind. As such, I give Dharma Bums 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: the Penguin Group, 1959. Print.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


           Anagrams can be pretty funny. For example, “New York Times” rearranges to “Monkeys write”, and if you shuffle around “Weapons of mass destruction” you get “US team swoops. Finds no trace”. Props to whoever spent the time figuring those out, because it certainly wasn’t me. Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams* is also very funny. Not only does the subject lend itself to clever witticisms, it’s evident that Moore is a comical person—a quality that consistently pervades her short stories, which continue to give her clout within the literary community.

Anagrams contains both wordplay and storyplay. Moore exercises in wordplay throughout; characters often confuse similar words, or use words with multiple meanings and thereby have trouble communicating. Usually, the mix-up is amusing, like when the main character explains, “I remember hearing my mother say to [my brother] once in a loud, scolding whisper: ‘Louis! Don’t play with your genitals!” which I thought was the same word as gentiles—leaving me greatly bewildered as to whom we were supposed to play with” (Moore, 171). Moore also engages in storyplay, incorporating several independent storylines, resulting in an ever-changing dynamic between two characters: Benna and Gerard. In one story, Benna is a poet; in another, she’s an aerobics instructor, etc. Each chapter is a different incarnation of the characters, i.e. an anagram of alternate realities.

The one consistency is Benna’s blatant failures. She struggles in every relationship and career move. Moore brilliantly employs the concept of interchangeable anagrams to explore Benna’s crisis of identity. We see a woman in pain in various ways, and Moore highlights her instability via literal plot points and the metaphorical anagram. How can Benna find and clutch to absolutes if meaning is so elusive? How can she find someone who will absolutely, unequivocally love her?

Clearly, Anagrams isn’t an uplifting story. We’re hit with wave after wave of depressing conversation. Thankfully, Moore throws us some life vests with her cynical humor. For instance, when describing Benna during one of her particularly heartbreaking identities, Moore says, “She insisted she loved him and would go mad without him or at least have a hard time grocery shopping” (Moore, 121). Benna reeks of pathetic pungency, but there is something very authentic, and therefore endearing, about her.

On the other hand, I find moments where Moore tries too hard to convey cleverness. Her overexertion manifests itself in some of Benna’s dialogue, but it’s most pronounced in Moore’s layering of storylines. I struggle with determining whether Moore intends certain chapters to be combined in a cohesive thread, or if we should view them separately, or a little bit of both. Honestly, although clarity of plot seems like a big make-or-break, I’m barely bothered by the confusion, and I appreciate her experimental method. In the end, what matters most for me is Moore’s obvious ability to create compelling characters who coerce me to empathy and laughter. Thus, I give Anagrams 4 out of 5 camel humps, and I look forward to seeing Moore grow as a writer in her subsequent novels.

*Moore, Lorrie. Anagrams. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

A Brief History of Seven Killings

            A Brief History of Seven Killings* is anything but brief, considering it’s sitting at a solid 686 pages. I knew that going in—it’s not like there’s a Spanx equivalent for books. Still, some lengthy literature doesn’t feel as long as it actually is. This big guy feels very much like 686 pages.

            The page count isn’t the only daunting aspect. The novel features dozens of perspectives such that Marlon James, the author, includes a character glossary.  The multitude of voices simultaneously intrigues and annoys me. Certainly, the range evidences James’ skill; however, jumping around so frequently lends to a jarring experience. It took a couple hundred pages before I could feel firmly situated and knowledgeable about who is who and how they are connected. This book is not for you if you’re not patient.

            Furthermore, the novel spans more than one decade (1976-1991) and more than one country. It primarily focuses on Jamaican ghettos, expanding to America as Jamaican gangs expand their drug empire. So, while you’re trying to adjust to the number of characters, you’re also navigating ever-changing political and geographical contexts. Because most of the novel takes place in Jamaica, many of the speakers are Jamaican. The prevalence of Jamaican dialect adds to my confusion as a reader, although I’m appreciative that it forces me to learn the lingo of an unfamiliar culture. Overall, I think that the non-American bend is one of the novel’s strong suits, but it’s worth noting that it contributes to a feeling of not knowing what the hell is happening.

            Patience isn’t the only prerequisite—you need to have some thick skin. James gets seriously dark. One chapter is from the point of view of a young boy getting buried alive. Sections begin with sentences like, “You can’t really know how it feels, just knowing deep down that in a few minutes these men will rape you” (James, 121). James doesn’t shy away from anything gruesome, sexual, or perverse.

            To be clear, this work is fictional, but I had to continually remind myself of its creative license. The story is so exhaustive and there are enough factual tidbits that you start to believe you’re reading a very colorful history book. For instance (no spoilers here---this is a back-of-the-book plot point), the first portion of the novel focuses on an assassination attempt on the Singer. Although he’s never explicitly mentioned by name, the Singer is Bob Marley, and the trajectory of his life in the book closely matches that of his true existence. I guess I’m an asshole, because before this novel, I thought Marley had died of a drug overdose. In reality, he died of melanoma. Of note, there was a real-life attempt made on Marley motivated by politics and gang-related strife.

            Perhaps the most disturbing element of James’ fact-fiction blending is his portrayal of the CIA as ruthlessly exploitive of Jamaica, a country at a crossroads. As one of the dons says, “Peace can’t happen when too much to gain in war”  (James, 416). Clearly, James extensively researched his topic, and I wonder how much truth there is to America’s covert, selfish involvement in steering ghetto chaos, killings, and drug trade. I’ll avoid getting all conspiracy theorist on you, but I will say that James’ insinuations are compelling. At the very least, he draws attention to a political dynamic that beforehand I’d honestly never given a single thought.

            I can tell that James poured himself into this novel, and some of the characters spoke to me and shook me. Unfortunately, I think the aforementioned negatives of reading a book of such volume and range temper the positives. I’m not surprised that James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. His feat is worth acknowledging, but his hard work doesn’t always translate into a story worthy of your time. As such, I give A Brief History of Seven Killings 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*James, Marlon. A Brief History of Seven Killings. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. Print.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

In the Lake of the Woods

            Oh, O’Brien, how you have failed me! I need brilliant literature to get me through the tomfoolery of this election cycle; unfortunately, you did not provide. I really respect O’Brien as a person and an author. The Things They Carried is one of my favorite books that I’ve read this past year, and I’m consistently reminded of his innovative writing style whenever I put pen to page. How did he follow up a genius piece like that with In the Lake of the Woods*?

            In the Lake of the Woods is a wanna-be Gone Girl (although, in his defense, the former was published 18 years before the latter). It tells the fictional story of a newly beaten United States senate candidate, John Wade, and the mysterious disappearance of his wife, Kathy. Is John responsible? O’Brien doesn’t tell us definitively, so we have to draw our own conclusions. John’s words and actions are scrutinized in the aftermath, and readers cling to various clues revealed through interviews with his peers and an inspection of his past.

            I’m fine with this on principle. O’Brien is the king of moral ambiguities, and it follows that he could produce a compelling tale with an equally ambiguous plotline. The biggest issue with this novel is that there are too many threads. Each chapter bounces around between:
  • flashbacks to John’s childhood.
  • flashbacks to John’s courtship of Kathy.
  • flashbacks to John’s combat in Vietnam.
  • “hypothesis” chapters that explore what might have happened to Kathy.
  • “evidence” chapters that include assorted quotes from fictional interviews.
  • the real time narrative.

Obviously, there is a lot going on here. Too much, in fact. I didn’t connect with a single character, because their development is so haphazard. Based on the Vietnam chapters, we know that John doesn’t healthily acknowledge his crippling PTSD. He is a man of secrets, so much so that he starts to believe the lies that he tells himself. It seems like there is a good opportunity here for O’Brien to say something meaningful about PTSD—to make significant commentary that offers the reader perspective. Instead, the unfocused structure prevents me from understanding how the events in Vietnam affect John’s psyche, other than his constant will to suppress his memories, which eventually leads to the suppressing of many memories, not just that of war. O’Brien is clearly haunted by his own Vietnam experiences—and rightfully so. I know very little about victims of PTSD, and I wish he had offered me more insight.

The lack of character-connection is particularly problematic when it comes to a mystery. If someone goes missing, I’m supposed to care, right? How could I care, when the “gone girl” is only vaguely described in relation to her husband, rather than in her own right? It appears that O’Brien thinks that writing a mystery requires rendering every thing and every character overly enigmatic.

Lastly, I despise the way O’Brien portrayed Kathy and John’s love. It is possessive, obsessive, and unnerving. I can get behind that (yassss Lolita), but their love isn’t believable. They say things to each other that indicate their supposed all-consuming, controlling affection, but because I can’t connect with the characters (and therefore can’t get inside their heads), I constantly question the intensity of their love. Are these just words? What do they really feel?

Alas, I’ll never know. I assume that O’Brien intended for readers to walk away scathed by a dark, cryptic story, trying to find their own truth within the tale. I walked away confused, bored, and unbelieving. Stick to TheThings They Carried, and don’t go further. In the Lake of the Woods receives 1 out of 5 camel humps.

*O’Brien, Tim. In the Lake of the Woods. New York: Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company, 1994. Print.