The 100th Novel: Joe R. Lansdale’s The Bottoms

At its surface Joe R. Lansdale’s novel The Bottoms shares parallels with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: its narrator looks back onto a southern childhood during the Depression — the setting is East Texas, rather than Alabama; the narrator is witness to the injustices of racial prejudice; the novel has an enigmatic figure like Boo Radley, known as the Goat Man; and the novel’s narrative voice is that of  precocious curious preteen Harry Crane.

When Harry and his younger sister Tom (Thomasina) discover the horribly mutilated body of a black woman in the bottom land of the Sabine River, they uncover more than a murder. They uncoil the not-so-hidden racism and racial injustice lurking in their small town, a set of beliefs and attitudes as dangerous and poisonous as the cottomouths that slither in the river. They also get caught up in hunting down the Goat Man, a half-goat, half-man rumored to lurk along the river’s banks.

Investigating the murder — which turns into an investigation of serial murder — is constable Jacob Crane, Harry and Tom’s father. Much like Atticus Finch, Jacob takes up the investigation of the multiple murders of black women to the consternation of the whites in the town, many of whom overtly try to discourage the investigation, simply because the victims are black. Jacob is harassed by the Klan; and is unable to prevent a black man — at first a suspect — from dying at the hands of a lynch mob.

Where Jacob differs from Atticus, is that Jacob is aware of his own innate racial prejudice: it’s what leads him to suspect and arrest the black man Mose, who later gets lynched, on thin circumstantial evidence. Jacob is like Atticus, who Jane Smiley notes doesn’t “have the will to break up the status quo and reimagine American life as socially, culturally, and politically as well as legally egalitarian.”

Atticus, to some extent, is always too virtuous, too stand-up of a guy, to see his fight is caught up in a failure, as Smiley notes, to question social forms. Jacob redeems himself somewhat by taking action beyond recognizing the injustices: he brutally beats the lynch mob’s leader with an axe handle, but only after a white woman turns up murdered after Mose is murdered.

The novel is an excellent portrait of the time it represents, and the voice of Harry is engaging. It reveals the innate racism that still seems to infiltrate the American mind. It’s also an wonderful portrait of a family, warts and all. Plus, it has a Goat Man (sort of).


Booking Through Thursday: Why I stop reading

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

If you’re not enjoying a book, will you stop mid-way? Or do you push through to the end? What makes you decide to stop?

I used to press on because I felt obliged to read the book whether I liked it or not. Sometimes I pressed on because the books were assigned reading.

Now, however, I’ll stop reading mid-way, or even before. The reasons vary. Usually, though, I’ll stop because of the language, if the language is clearly self-consciously written. That is, the writer is trying to sound like a writer. He’s amping up the prose to show off. He’s not writing in his voice.

If the language doesn’t turn me off, I keep reading, unless something else halts me. Coldness does this to me. For example, as many times as I’ve tried to read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, I stop. To me, Gaddis’s prose is cold in that novel.

One thing I’ve learned when I’ve tried to read a book like The Recognitions, and have given it a serious chance, I no longer feel obliged to read it. And I don’t have a class to pass.

Franzen in Time

I’m not a big fan of Jonathan Franzen, but it’s nice to see a good writer make the cover of the Aug. 23 issue of Time in our post-literate age. His latest novel Freedom is out this month, nine years after The Corrections.

The Time piece is a nice profile of the writer and a preview of the book. Here’s a passage I liked on the significance of the novel, on reading in general in a multi-media saturated culture driven to constant distraction:

There are any number of reasons to want novels to survive. The way Franzen thinks about it is that books can do things, socially useful things, that other media can’t. He cites . . . the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of busyness: that state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions. With the help of cell phones, e-mail and handheld games, it’s easier to stay busy, in the Kierkegaardian sense, than it’s ever been.

Reading, in its quietness and sustained concentration, is the opposite of busyness. ‘We are so distracted by and engulfed by the technologies we’ve created, and by the constant barrage of so-called information that comes our way, that more than ever to immerse yourself in an involving book seems socially useful,’ Franzen says. ‘The place of stillness that you have to go to to write, but also read seriously, is the point where you can actually make responsible decisions, where you can actually engage productively with an otherwise scary and unmanageable world.’

Book Review: Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory

The Wasp FactoryThe Wasp Factory by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1991, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho stirred-up a hornet’s nest of outrage from critics and feminists before it was published. The novel was scorned for its graphic depictions of violence, especially against women.

In the novel serial killer Patrick Bateman describes his murders in excruciating detail. He also describes his daily life in the same excruciating detail, in flat atonal first-person prose.

From brushing his teeth to eating meals, all of Bateman’s is life is ritualized, and disturbing. His frame of mind is eerily like that of Frank Cauldhame, protagonist of Iain Bank’s The Wasp Factory.

Like Bateman, Cauldhame’s life is ritualized: he’s developed a fantasy world that often involves torturing and killing animals (apparently a common trait of serial killers). Within that fantasy world is the Wasp Factory, an old clock Cauldhame uses to kill wasps in an labyrinthine torture chamber.

Like Bateman, Cauldhame, 17, has also murdered — in his case family members: one cousin with an adder, another cousin with a giant kite, and a younger brother with a bomb that had lain unexploded since World War II.

As sinister as Cauldhame is, what makes this novel palatable is the language and voice of its narrator. The flat tone of American Psycho makes it almost impossible to read without experiencing the overwhelming desire to pluck your eyes out.

Cauldhame has a voice. He’s almost pleasant to follow as he tours the reader through his darkly comic fantasy world.

You actually sort of care for Cauldhame. You want to know what happens to him and what caused his need to kill and torture.

And Banks reveals this with a twist that even Ambrose Bierce would have been envious of.

View all my reviews

Booking Through Thursday: Reading questions

Here’s this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

1. Favorite childhood book?

Comic books. Batman and Sgt. Rock.

2. What are you reading right now?

The Tar-Aiym Krang by Alan Dean Foster

3. What books do you have on request at the library?


4. Bad book habit?

Getting a big stack of to-reads on the night table, and then looking for more books.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?

6. Do you have an e-reader?

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
I try to read one at a time. But, it never works that way. I usually end up reading several books at one time.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
No. Now I just get a chance to spout my opinions on the Internet. It’s so good the Internet is on computers now.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
I can’t recall a terrible read so far, but I wasn’t really entertained by Layover in Dubai by Dan Fesperman, and Ian McEwan’s Solar.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
The last read was pretty good: The Moth Factory by Iain Banks

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
I don’t really know if I have a “comfort zone” when it comes to reading. Then again, I haven’t voluntarily picked out any algebra textbooks to read for pleasure lately.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
See above.

13. Can you read on the bus?
I don’t ride the bus.

14. Favorite place to read?
In my bedroom.

15. What is your policy on book lending?

I will, but I have to have some sense that I’ll get the book back.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
I try not to. I have in the past. But I didn’t inhale.

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
Yes. When the conversation is engaging.

18.  Not even with text books?
See above

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
Unfortunately, I only know English.

20. What makes you love a book?
Good characters, living settings, language. A sense the writer cared enough to craft the very best he or she could.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
See above

22. Favorite genre?
I don’t have a particular favorite, although at the moment I’m reacquainting myself with science fiction.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
See above

Favorite biography?
Hemingway by Kenneth Lynn

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Yes. Honestly some are insightful, especially those written by qualified professionals.

26. Favorite cookbook?
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
I can’t think of anything right off that was all that inspiring.

28. Favorite reading snack?

Dry red wine.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
The last time I had that happen it was reading Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
50/50 maybe.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
I try to find something good, but sometimes there are books so bad you have to warn people away from them.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?
Spanish. That’s the second language I know the most about.

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
I can’t see myself ever getting through all the volumes of Proust.

35. Favorite Poet?

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?
1-3 on average

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
Not often, although I sometimes return them not fully read.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises

39. Favorite fictional villain?
Darth Vader

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Something with less than 300 pages

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
A day or so.

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
No matter how often I’ve tried, I can’t get past the first few pages of Gravity’s Rainbow.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
Noise. Especially children.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
Sideways and Apocalypse Now

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
Almost all the ones from Hemingway novels — too literal.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
up in the $100 range

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
pretty often

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
boring characters, unsatisfying setting. A writer who clearly hasn’t put 100 percent into the book.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
I try

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Keep. I’m sort of Gollum-like with this. Although at the same time I’m getting better at letting go.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

52. Name a book that made you angry.
Brightsided by Barbara Ehrenreich. Not what she had written but what she had revealed about how pervasive the cult of positive thinking is in American culture.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Can’t think of one right off hand

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Science fiction

The guilty pleasures of Joshua Braff

I’ve felt like Joshua Braff in this NPR piece, loving such guilty pleasures science fiction, but disdaining the genre all through grad school as if it didn’t exist.  But, I’ve also pretentiously fawned over Joyce and DeLillo, and I have read them, Ulysses and Underworld, though not Finnegan’s Wake or whatever DeLillo’s recently released.

But, I’ve also read John Irving and Stephen King. They are master storytellers, and storytelling sometimes seems lacking in the language experiments of the DeLillos and Joyces of the lit world.

Enjoy the link:

Proud and Unpretentious: Lessons from John Irving

There Are No Rules – Your Online Presence Can’t Just Be a Gimmick (Or: Using Twitter Meaningfully While Unpublished) via Writer’s Digest

Below is another post on writing, publishing and marketing. Regarding using Twitter as a marketing tool, I think the key word in the title is “meaningfully”. I signed up on Twitter just to see what it was all about. I gained some followers. Tweeted some, but never continually on a daily basis. I still don’t. Sometimes I try to tweet regularly as I have today, at the same time, I wonder how much of me is too much of me. How many of my tweets are really meaningful? Which ones will gain an audience? Which ones might snag a freelance assignment?

There Are No Rules – Your Online Presence Can’t Just Be a Gimmick (Or: Using Twitter Meaningfully While Unpublished).