Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #1

#1: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
So. Here we are. The top of the heap. 
As soon as I read this debut novel by Peter Heller back in July, I knew emphatically, without a single doubt, that this was not only the best book I would read in 2012, but it was one of the best books I have ever read in my life.

I've been re-reading The Dog Stars over the last week, partly to revisit it a bit as I wrote this post, but also because it was such a great book, I genuinely wanted to read it again already. I wrote a long review of this earlier in the year - part of my assessment then was: "The Dog Stars is hands-down, easily, without a fight, the best book I have read in 2012 and probably the best book I have read in several years." Sometimes it's easy to be overly enthusiastic about something while it's still fresh, but damn, as I'm reading this again, I'm sticking to it. I re-read a section today that just cracked me right the hell open. Almost lost my shit. Whew. 

Since I've been picking annual favorites for the Book Catapult, the tops have been We, the Drowned, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Everything Matters!, City of Thieves, and Five Skies. I think The Dog Stars might be the best of that elite bunch.

The story goes: 9 years have passed since 99.7% of the human population was wiped out by a global flu pandemic. Our man Hig lost his wife, all of his friends, family, everyone he knew - think about that: everyone you ever knew, ever - except for his dog, Jasper. Now they live a meager existence on the edges of a small airport outside of Erie, Colorado, (or what used to be Erie) their only neighbor a misanthropic gun-nut named Bangley. (Actually, if not for Bangley and his arsenal, Hig would most likely have been killed by someone long ago.) To keep bands of marauding men at bay, the two have built a perimeter and a guard tower, chipping away at life by hunting in the mountains, tending a modest vegetable garden, and never trusting anyone else for any reason. (There is an unbelievably tense sequence in the first act when, returning from hunting in the mountains and still too far from camp for Bangley to help with a sniper rifle, Hig is pursued by nine men with machetes.) Hig also flies a small Cesna airplane - taking it up and over the surrounding areas, ostensibly to "secure the perimeter" but really to escape the hellish confines the world has become. Periodically, he visits a community of Mennonites living nearby - they survived the flu, but were left with the highly contagious blood disease that killed just about everyone else. Hig and the group maintain an unspoken 15-foot distance for all contact, for worry of transferring the virus. "Was this hell?" Hig asks himself. "To love like this, to grieve from fifteen feet, an uncrossable distance?" After nearly a decade of this life, this spare existence with the bare minimum of human contact, Hig is getting a little tired. Numb. He's starting to wonder what the point of it - Life - is anymore.
I cannot live like this. Cannot live at all not really. What was I doing? Nine years of pretending.

Sirius A, the Dog Star. And its little blue pal.

So, he leaves the airfield and Bangley behind, flying off towards Grand Junction, CO - the origin of a radio transmission he heard once, three years back. This is how desperate for human contact Hig is. Grand Junction is beyond the Cesna's "point of no return" - when there isn't enough fuel left for a return trip. He has no idea, really, what he's specifically searching for. En route to Something Completely Fucking Different, as he puts it. He's making it up as he goes. His internal monologues are unlike anything you're used to, I can guarantee that.
What do you want? Hig. What?
I want to be the color of smoke.
Then what?
Then. Then.  
Heller's style might take some readers a little getting used to. Hig's narration is choppy and stream-of-consciousness - especially at the start - and seems to jump all over the place, but I chalked it up to just that: Hig's rambling, unhindered brain. It's almost as if there are two distinct people living inside his mind, sharing thoughts - the pre- and post-apocalypse Hig. The only contact he's had with other human beings over the last decade has involved horrifying violence or has been at an excruciating arm's length. What would that do to a man's psyche? Shit, of course he's lonely and a little bit crazy after nine years. What does he have to lose by flying off toward points unknown? His life? Who cares?

Here's the thing though - this isn't The Road or some other awful, morbid tale where people eat babies and everything ends up worse than when it started. The point of Hig's journey is to regain that semblance of humanity that he knows still resides inside him somewhere. The best part is that it doesn't live that far down in him after all - it just needs a slight prodding to bubble up to the surface and remind him that it's actually good to be alive, despite the circumstances. The only trick is getting to that point and back again safely. That point of no return.

The Dog Stars is an eloquent, perfectly constructed, emotional masterpiece of contemporary literature that I was completely unprepared for. It tore giant chunks out of me as I read it, then calmly replaced all the pieces before it was done. It has a restorative power in that way - you are thrown in to a world where humankind is at our absolute worst, lowest, most despicable point. Just as you start to think that there is no hope, no plan for moving forward beyond murder and chaos, Peter Heller shows you that all is not lost. Just over the horizon is the answer. Home is just around the bend.

www.peterheller.net: where an earlier blurb of mine can be seen sandwiched between quotes from Oprah and Outside Magazine.
More Book Catapult love
The PW review
The NPR review
Buy The Dog Stars from your local independent bookstore.

#2: The Coldest Night
#3: May We Be Forgiven
#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #2

The much-improved paperback
#2: The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
The full Catapult review.

I really don't know how this one slipped by so many reviewers and readers this year. (It did receive a coveted starred review from PW and get named to their Top Fiction list, but everyone else seems to have missed it.) Although, in the opening to my earlier review, I went off on the crappy cover art (not seen here): "you will almost certainly overlook (it) when you see it sitting on a table in your local bookstore." So maybe that's what happened. 

When I finished reading The Coldest Night back in February, I was immediately sure that it would take a monumentally great book to knock it from the Number One spot on the Catapult Notable list for the year. And, well, that did happen, but just barely.

Olmstead has got to be - in my opinion - one of America’s most under-appreciated novelists. Certainly the best one you've never heard of. This book - his seventh! - is laid out like a three-act, allegorical play about Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Or, at least that's how I read it. Henry Childs is a 17-year-old poor Southern boy in 1950 when he meets Mercy, from the more-refined country club crowd. They of course fall in love and they run away to start a life together in New Orleans, far from Mercy’s domineering family. Life is blissfully perfect, until Mercy's brother tracks them down, humiliates Henry, and forces Mercy back home. Unable to face his own crumbling life, Henry joins the Army and enters the Korean War - and this is where Olmstead truly hits his narrative stride. As soft and tender as Act One might have been, Act Two is gritty, violent, terrifying, and dark. (Heaven, Hell, anyone?) I hate re-using quotes that I've already used in earlier posts, but this one... man, oh man...
An unraveled sheath of muscle sprawled from a torn pant leg. Red-hot fragments driven deeply into a man's body and his legs were shattered. A fist-sized hole. The men did not look human after war's subtractions: no eye, no ear, no nose, no face, no arm, no leg, no gut, no bowel, no bone, no spine, no muscle, no nerve, no breath, no heart, no brain, no faith.
Never are we hit with clichéd heart-to-heart talks between soldiers or revealing inner monologues; war is a tension-filled Hell and Henry's emotional detachment is painfully obvious on every page. It's terrifying, all of it. Henry's animalistic, instinctive fight for survival on the frigid, snow-swept landscape of the Korean peninsula eventually defines him as a human, despite the fact that he manages to lose a grip on his actual humanity in the process. At every turn - especially upon his return home in Act Three - he feels the world rejecting him, like a puzzle piece trying to fit into the wrong puzzle. Eventually, as you know that he would, he makes his way back to Mercy - both the woman he loves and the figurative "mercy" he seeks for redemption - leading him to a stunning conclusion about his life path. It all packs a wallop, no doubt - emotionally, philosophically - and it left me stunned, sad, and in utter awe of one of our finest living writers.
  
It dawned on me as I was revisiting this book for the purposes of this Notable list that Henry's story has amazing parallels to John Bartle's in The Yellow Birds (#9). These characters are separated in time by 60+ years, yet... nothing has changed. Each of these men - no, boys - is irrevocably damaged for the rest of their lives by what they saw in wartime. It just ain't right. Bartle says, "It was a shitty little war." Which one we're talking about doesn't really matter in the end. They're all shitty. 

Buy The Coldest Night from your local independent bookstore.

#3: May We Be Forgiven
#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #3

#3: May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes
In lieu of just a full-on review here for Number 3 on the countdown, I first give you this little anecdote:

Back in July I was lucky enough to get invited to one of those pre-publication dinners hosted by a publisher in honor of one of their authors. Most big pubs do this from time to time, both as a way of getting the word out about an upcoming book or an author that they want to push into the next level or maybe it's just a flatout bribery of the local buyers. Hey, whatever. This one was a dinner for A.M. Homes - author of one of the original Catapult Notables from back in aught-6 and the brand new blackly comic novel, May We Be Forgiven - held at the fancy Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, the infamous hotel on Sunset Boulevard where Jim Morrison fell off the roof, Helmut Newton died in a car crash in the driveway, and John Belushi overdosed on speedballs. Hunter S. Thompson, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jay McInerney and A.M. Homes herself have all made extended stays there over the years. Sort of weird cultural bastion - an oasis for creative types to avoid the Hollywood spotlight, believe it or not.

I arrived later than I would have liked, since I got stuck in the godawful, shit-ass traffic that exists between San Diego and Los Angeles. On the flip side though, I ended up sitting next to Homes at the table. (There were probably 15 people at this dinner.) We talked about the novel - which I had finished reading a few weeks before - how funny it was, how dark it was, yadda yadda. Mostly A.M. held court though, talking about the Chateau and her time within its walls. (She had been in Hollywood working on The L Word - the Showtime program which she wrote and produced - and lived at the Chateau for the time she was out there.) The hotel has all kinds of hidden nooks and idiosyncrasies that fascinate - beyond the facts that Howard Hughes once lived in the penthouse and Led Zeppelin rode motorcycles through the lobby. At one point she told me about this great antique desk that is in the lounge off the main lobby. It's a great desk to sit and write at, when it's quiet, but the best part, she told me, is that it's filled with this great Chateau Marmont stationery. "Before you leave, you got to get some of that paper," she whispered to me conspiratorially. (I don't think she's capable of whispering, by the way. Creative license there.) So after dinner, while everyone was saying their "goodbyes" and "thank yous," A.M. Homes took me by the arm and brought me down into the lounge, where she ransacked the antique desk and filled my hands with all sorts of stationery. "Isn't this great?" she said. "Yeah!" I replied, now the owner of a pad of paper, several envelopes, and 5 correspondence-sized sheets of rag paper, all embossed with the Chateau Marmont logo.

So I was bribed with a fancy dinner and free stationery, it's true, but the thing is, I had already read May We Be Forgiven and loved it.

This is one of those books that you alternately find yourself laughing and snorting out loud in public because of and then feeling bad for laughing at the horrible thing you just thought was so funny. Whenever I try to pitch this one to someone, they think it sounds like an awful story. (This started with my wife while I was reading it and I could never dig myself out of the hole I was in.) Harold Silver is in a loveless marriage, he hates his successful, obnoxious older brother, George, and when on Thanksgiving, George's wife, Jane plants a secret kiss on Harry, he decides to roll with it. Soon after, George gets into a car accident and kills two people, so, naturally, Harry starts sleeping with Jane. (I never said these were good people.) Then George "escapes" from the hospital where he is being kept under observation, walks home, where he finds Harry in bed with Jane, and calmly murders Jane with a table lamp, right in front of Harry. All of this happens in the first 14 pages of the book, mind you, so I'm hardly giving anything away. Yet, this is the point where I lose people, funny enough. Just when it starts to get good, I swear! Sigh...

The rest of the book tracks Harry's progess in the world over the course of the following year. It's a kind of controlled madness on Homes' part. Harry moves into his brother's house, starts taking care of George's two kids (Ashley & Nate, who are both much smarter than Harry), has his brother committed to an experimental insane asylum (sort of a "Most Dangerous Game"-sort of thing), walks the dog, feeds the cat, meets local housewives in internet sex-chatrooms, sets up a bar mitzvah for Nate in a small South African village. (And he keeps seeing a homeless guy who looks just like Don DeLillo.) Oh, also, Harry is a passionate Nixon scholar by trade and teaches a class at the local college that no one attends unless under duress. (When I say "passionate," I mean, like when he's undergoing a CAT scan, he mentally reviews Nixon's enemies list to comfort himself. #19 is Paul Newman, by the way.) Then he's approached by the Richard Nixon library - well, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, actually - to covertly assess a collection of dark short stories penned by Tricky Dick. It's all craziness. BUT...

Harry's year in the wilderness is more eye-opening for him than he can at first admit to himself. As he grows and grieves in his own way over the course of this insanity-laced year, we are happily along for the ride, unquestioningly loving the person he becomes on the other side. He gradually - through mishaps and madness - becomes the father he never thought he'd be, to a trio of kids (George's two plus the one orphaned by George in the car accident that started all of this nonsense) who never thought they needed one in the first place - and certainly not one like Harry. And in turn, they all begin to heal together in their wild dogpile of a family - it's the familial ties that bind, after all. It's beautiful and sad, hilarious and heartbreaking. God, I really loved just about every word of this book and I wish more people would just buck up and give it a shot.  

As we are driving home, they all fall asleep in the car. I am alone and awake. Driving up the Henry Hudson parkway to the Saw Mill, I see the glowing eyes of a raccoon staring me down at the edge of the road. It begins to snow - first small white flakes, and then fat ones, the size of doilies under the lamps in Aunt Lillian's house. I open the window; the snow blows into the car, dusting everyone as if with a kind of magical powder.
Buy May We Be Forgiven from your local independent bookstore.

#4: This Is How You Lose Her
#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #4

#4: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I'm not going to condescend here - you've no doubt heard of Mr. Junot Diaz by this point. Fun facts: born in the Dominican Republic, he emigrated to New Jersey when he was a kid. His first novel - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He's won a MacArthur Genius Grant. And both a PEN/O. Henry and a PEN/Malamud Award. And a Guggenheim Fellowship. And he teaches creative writing at MIT. His newest book, his third, This Is How You Lose Her, is a New York Times Notable book, a finalist for the National Book Award, and now, #4 on the Catapult Notable list.

In this collection of short stories - that effectively functions and reads like a complete novel - Diaz expounds on the tragedy of love, relationships, and all the inherent failures within, all through the eyes of his cheating, flawed, rough-hewn, Dominican narrator Yunior. Truthful, brilliant, vibrant, and sad, these linked short vignettes trace Yunior’s life through his relationships with women – girlfriends, his mother, his dying brother's girl - and how he so badly screws them all up, mostly though infidelity and pig-headedness. "I'm not a bad guy," he begins on page one. Ri-i-i-i-ight.
I know how that sounds - defensive, unscrupulous - but it's true. I'm like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole. See, many months ago, when Magda was still my girl, when I didn't have to be careful about almost anything, I cheated on her with this chick who had tons of eighties freestyle hair. Didn't tell Magda about it, either. You know how it is. A smelly bone like that, better off buried in the backyard of your life.
Oh, Yunior. Idiot. Yet, even though he is that self-proclaimed "sucio," you can't help but pull for him, willing him to change his stripes, even though you know, definitively, he never will. Not until he himself is utterly broken by the decisions he makes. For full effect, check Diaz reading aloud from the last story in the book, The Cheater's Guide to Love on The Dinner Party:

 

Diaz is most definitely becoming the voice of a generation - his is the face of America in this new century and his voice is our voice. He's one of those rare birds that I can read and read and read and never get sick of - I could read 10,000 stories about Yunior, despite his being a complete asshole and reprobate most of the time. The lyrical, storyteller's cadence of Diaz's prose is enough to keep me going, wanting to hear more after every heartbreaking story ends. (I mean, they're not completely heartbreaking - Diaz is exceptionally funny and Yunior deserves pretty much everything he gets.) You know there's that old running debate over which contemporary writers and novels will stand the test of time - who will still be read and discussed by generations far down the line? I guarantee you that in 50 years, we'll still be talking about the genius of Junot Diaz.

Buy This Is How You Lose Her from your local independent bookstore.


#5: Things That Are
#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables

Monday, December 17, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #5

#5: Things That Are: Essays by Amy Leach

Not Actual Size
First of all, Things That Are - published by one of my favorite independent publishers, Milkweed Editions - is a beautifully crafted little thing that just about fits in the palm of your hand. (If your hand is larger than a child's but smaller than, say, Andre the Giant's.) Its pages are filled with these fantastic pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Nate Christopherson that are perfectly suited in their weirdness to Leach's prose. The essays (I guess that's what they are, even though they read more like the strangest dream journal you could put together) are all oddly poignant and plainly stunning little vignettes about the natural world surrounding us. Leach uses words describing animals and plant life that you swear aren’t real, only to discover, to considerable glee, your linguistic and ecological ignorance. (There's a great glossary in the back with words like "argle-bargle," "whimwhams," and "radish ministers.") There’s something about the way all of her sentences come together that feels comfortable and almost euphoric, as if we’re shrugging our way into an old coat on the coldest day of the year. Each essay unfolds as if from the lips of an odd, old-tymey storyteller sitting at the edge of the firelight – you know all these things to be true, but you’ve just never heard it all put so eloquently.

For example, from Please Do Not Yell At The Sea Cucumber, Amy elucidates on the 24 eyes, "hanging down on stalks," of the brainless box jellyfish:
...maybe, in fact, the brainlessness of the box jellyfish is a direct consequence of its tremendous powers of sight. Perhaps neither the animal nor the prophet has been invented who could process so thorough a vision. It is disquieting enough to be hyperacute or hypersensitive; perhaps being both would very soon melt your brain and leave you quiescent, hanging transparently in the giant dancing green waters of the world.


Illustration by Nate Christopherson from Things That Are

One more thing: this here marks the first ever Book Catapult contest, such as it is. If you can provide me with the most-clever, oddly accurate, hilariously whimsical definition for the following word or term taken from Amy Leach's Things That Are glossary, I will personally send you a pristine copy of Things That Are. How's that sound?

The phrase: leguminous exoplanet

Send your definition to seth@thebookcatapult.com and I will select the finest entry & send the winner a hardcover copy of Amy Leach's Things That Are (Milkweed Editions.)

Buy Things That Are from your local independent bookstore. <-- Follow that link to see my Indie Next list blurb (which sounds a little like what I wrote here) AND hear Amy Leach read one of her stories, set to music. It's a multi-media extravaganza over at Indiebound!

#6: Battleborn
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables

Sunday, December 16, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #6

#6: Battleborn: Stories by Claire Vaye Watkins
 
After reading this stunning debut collection of stories, I felt roughed up, battered, like this girl just punched me in the face as hard as she could. The characters populating the tales of Claire Vaye Watkins seem to hang just at the fringes of society, held just at an arm’s length, but close enough to give the reader a whiff of what they're packing. They're almost all broken, obsessive, and heartbroken in some way, but as uncomfortable as all of these people make me on some basic, primordial level, I could not tear my eyes away from them. Watkins’ Nevada - a character in and of itself - is a land of broken hearts, bunny ranches, abusive spouses, gold diggers, dried-up lakebeds, and firecrackers in the desert. A l'il rundown:

Ghosts, Cowboys
This opener unfolds in a calm, disarming way, but Watkins gently takes you by the hand and leads you into her own dark backstory. In reality, her father, whom she never really knew, was a non-murdering member of the Manson family. Almost as a way of combating the inevitable queries that come with a story like this, she fires off an opening salvo that covers the Manson-thing as quickly as possible. Told from what could be her own perspective, she tells of the child born (by Charlie wielding a razor blade) while the Family was living on George Spahn's ranch in the California mountains that haunts her like a spectre. "My father didn't kill anyone. And he's not a hero. This isn't that kind of story." Whew.

The Last Thing We Need
While driving in the Nevada desert outside his hometown, Thomas Gray comes across "what looked to be the debris left over from an auto accident." Among the detritus strewn all over the road he finds two prescription bottles (labeled for a Duane Moser), a Ziploc bag filled with letters, and a bundle of photos of an old car. The story is told in the format of confession-style letters written by Thomas to this mysterious, possible car accident victim, Duane Moser. This one was
one of my favorites, also unfolding slowly, morphing from the innocent & naïve handling of a weird situation into something darker, more serious and personal. 

Rondine Al Nino
This one is probably the most disturbing piece in this collection. Again, it's told in a sort of confessional style, of a woman telling a new lover of "something terrible" she once did, a sort of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" sort of thing. The confession, of sorts, is of the time when the woman was 16 and she went to Las Vegas with her friend Lena. They got drunk on the Strip and met a group of college boys who took them back to their hotel room. Brace yourself. The narrator has (possibly consensual?) sex with one of the boys, while Lena passes out while they're all watching a movie and is raped by the other two boys. When Lena wakes up in the middle of all of this, groggy, drunk, and scared, the narrator tells her "It's okay. We're having fun" and urges her back into the bed. Supremely fucked up.


The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past
Two Italian hikers get separated in the Nevada desert. One gets lost, one ends up at the Cherry Patch Ranch surrounded by prostitutes. Michele tells himself he's waiting for his friend to return, to somehow wander back into town on his own so they can go home. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Darla, one of the working girls at the ranch, setting himself up for heartbreak.

Wish You Were Here, The Archivist, and Graceland - these three stories were my least favorites, as they were populated by Watkins' most-obsessive creations. There's some great tension that builds in Wish, but the other two house characters so broken as to be borderline pathetic. This is not to say that any of these are not phenomenally well-written, they just weren't my thing, that's all. Onward.

Man-o-War
My favorite of the collection - you can really feel the desert heat & smell the chaparral & the sharp sulfur stink of firecrackers. Harris - a hermit living in the Nevada desert - is out collecting abandoned fireworks near his home one fine morning (kids bring them out to the middle of nowhere to fire off, then get drunk and forget where the stash is) when he finds a teenaged Mexican girl passed out on dry lake bed. He takes her home to get her out of the deadly blazing sun and over a 24-hour period, the two end up forging a bond over their shared loneliness and heartache. But eventually, someone will come looking for the girl...

The Diggings
More of a novella, this one, about two brothers who moved from Ohio to California during the 1849 gold rush to make their fortune for their family. It doesn't really work out. An intense and weighty story about the driving obsessions of men that takes on a voyeuristic quality as one brother - the narrator - watches the other slowly descend into gold madness. "I could not endure the fact of his believing, believing, believing beyond the rotten end."

Virginia City

Another vaguely obsessive tale here about mixed up feelings of love and lust between three friends. It more exudes a vibe, rather than being so plot-driven. I don't know, I just kind of dug this one.
"She puts her head on his shoulder like he's always been there. Like the three of us have always been right here. I feel the last three beers resting like silver nuggets in the bottom of my purse. Below us glow the blue-orange flames in the lamps along Main Street. We drink and watch the sun dissolve into the Sierras, and for a small sparkling moment, we are who we once were."
The bottom line is that Watkins is a remarkable powerhouse talent. While her stories are all filled with a profound grief, longing, and obsession, they beg to be read. Her prose is so sharp and crisp, you find yourself wanting more and more, despite the preponderance of broken lives the stories showcase. Maybe they need to be taken in slowly, one at a time, spread out over a long period, in order to allow them to fully absorb into your head. I'd say that maybe readers need to pick & choose the ones they read, but I think the whole collection offers a broader scope of the author's own experience, functioning much like a memoir would. What they definitely do need is to just be read.

Buy Battleborn from your local independent bookstore.
 
#7: A Sense of Direction
#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #7

#7: A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage For the Restless and the Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Might I recommend you also read the full Catapult review.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus was living in Berlin, in his mid-20's, without gainful employment or a particularly driving passion. His younger, more successful brother Micah summed him up as such: "Your life is economically nonviable. You write book reviews and work part-time at a literary journal not even Mom reads." He had moved to Berlin because of its supposed lack of constraint, but Gideon was finding that he needed, well, a sense of direction in his life. After a 4-day drunken spree with his friend Tom Bissell (journalist and author of Magic Hours and Extra Lives) they decide to find that "sense of purpose" by walking the Camino de Santiago - a 1000-year old pilgrimage route across the whole of northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, the fabled burial site of St. James. It wasn't that Gideon or Tom was Catholic or even vaguely religious ("a heretic and a Jew," in fact) - the Camino is all about the journey, man. About finding a direction...

So they walk. They walk a long way together, all the way across the north end of Spain. This gives Gideon a lot of time to thing about things, unencumbered by a job or paying the rent or thinking about who he's dating

I know, it sounds like bunk or the privileged meanderings of the restless, single, white, American male. All I can tell you is that as a former 20-something white American man (still a man, just no longer 20-something) I hit that same point in my life where I was questioning my direction, my sense of purpose. I don't know, exactly, what pulled me from this existential funk, but I eventually moved forward. Maybe it was moving to New Orleans. Maybe it was working in a bookstore. Maybe it was meeting my wife. Probably, it was all of those things that happened in the same span of years - the point is that I get where Gideon is coming from. Our exact, specific life trajectories and familial histories may be vastly different, but I understand the feelings and thoughts he was having when he hit that mid-20's point without a real sense of where his life was taking him. 

One of Gideon's acquaintances in Berlin had a great, resonating assessment that I felt kind of nailed it down well. Gideon has complained to him that he's having a "crisis."
Of course you're having a crisis. Look, everybody is having a crisis all of the time. You either feel like you're too tied up and thus prevented from doing what you want to do, or you feel like you're not tied up enough and have no idea what you want to do. The only thing that allows us any relief is what we tend to call purpose, or what I think about in terms of direction.
Gideon doesn't exactly find all the answers on the Camino - he never really thought that he would - but he did find the inherent benefit of living in the moment for awhile, of being able to focus inward. He definitely found out that he enjoyed the act of a walking pilgrimage, so the book is also about the other two pilgrimages that he went on, searching for that life direction. Actually, the way he describes them, each trip had its own purpose: the Camino was about searching for the sense of direction; the second - a cold, lonely circumabulation to the 88 temples of the Japanese island of Shikoku - was about coming back around to where you started; and the third was about "knowing where we stand." (The third pilgrimage was with his father and his brother Micah to a Rosh Hashanah celebration in Uman, Ukraine.) This third one was really about re-centering his life and trying to heal the fractured relationship with his father - a gay rabbi with a propensity for leaving his kids in the lurch. Only Gideon could tell you whether he succeeded in achieving what he set out to do - but it would seem that through these trips, he found that elusive sense of direction. 

This is definitely one of those books that may not be for everyone out there - it's certainly worth the read for the travelogue aspect, as Gideon is a solid journalist on par with the best travel writers out there in that regard. (I loved his observations about what he saw in those three very different countries.) To some, his inward meanderings may not hit the mark - they did for me, but books are often very personal in that way. I would say that if you've ever had that same feeling of being rootless or directionless - or if you know someone, maybe that 20-something in your life struggling with this - Gideon's book is a very necessary read. Thus it comes in at #7 on the Notable list.

#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World 
The 2012 Notable Notables 

Friday, December 14, 2012

2012 Catapult Notable List - #8

#8: The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

I would highly recommend that you read the full Catapult review - c'mon, clicketty-click, it's not far away. All the answers are there.

RFoC - the third novel by Jonathan Evison, author of last year's #2 Catapult Notable, West of Here - is a fantastic mix of hilarity and general buffoonery tossed with the profundity of grief and a minivan full of raw emotion. Ben Benjamin has lost everything - his home, his job, his wife, his kids, his friends. Drifting along, he takes a 28-hour course on caregiving at a local church and gets himself a job taking care of a cantankerous, waffle-eating, sexually frustrated 19-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy named Trev. Everything with Trev is about routine: khaki cargo shorts, black t-shirts, Weather Channel, waffles, video games, a new pair of shoes bought at the mall on the second Thursday of every month. It turns out, taking care of someone else is pretty much just what Ben needs, even though it takes him awhile to come around to fully embrace that conclusion.

A self-serving photo of me and the author.
As maybe a method of distracting Trev from the endless loop that is his life, Ben starts mapping out - on a giant wall map - all the weird roadside attractions across the American landscape. Hitler's stamp collection, the Virgin Mary in a stump, two-headed farm animals, the World's Oldest Cured Ham. Trev's mother doesn't think this is a healthy pursuit, giving the boy false hope for some sort of half-assed buddy-comedy roadtrip. But when Trev's absent father (one of the most hilariously pathetic characters I've ever met) crashes his car in the middle of the Utah desert, Ben decides that a roadtrip is indeed in order and the two set out in the red '97 Mazda MPV handicap-accessible minivan. For Trev, this trip is a chance to get out into the world a bit and to finally connect with his non-existent father figure. For Ben, the drive is about running toward your fears, rather than away from them - a cathartic act of righting the ship that is his broken life.

As I mentioned in my earlier review of this, Evison has very specific reasons for why he wrote this particular novel - available over here: www.revisedfundamentals.com/author-essay.html. The very act of writing RFoC was a cathartic act for its creator, and it would seem that Evison has poured a goodly portion of himself and his familial history into this novel. Getting into that van is the important thing - both for Ben and Evison - for you can't really face your own life and all of its inherent, inevitable failings and heartbreak, until you look square at what got you there in the first place, car keys in hand. I got the sense that Fundamentals was written as much for the author as it was for us. And I'm totally okay with that. Johnny:
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is a story of total collapse, and ultimately, reconstruction. Before it is over, this calamitous journey will cover five states, resulting in one birth, two arrests, and one instance of cannibalism and including a dust storm, a hail storm, several shit storms, and a six-hundred-mile cat-and-mouse pursuit by a mysterious Buick Skylark.
      Baggage is collected.
      Hearts are won and lost.
      Mistakes are forgiven.
      Futures are realized.
There you have it. #8 with a bullet.
Buy The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving from your local independent bookstore.

#9: The Yellow Birds
#10: Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World
The 2012 Notable Notables