Sunday, December 16, 2018

Book Review: Hoosier Hysteria by Meri Henriques Vahl

Hoosier Hysteria: A Fateful Year in the Crosshairs of Race in America

by Meri Henriques Vahl

Paperback, 336 pages

Published July 2018 by She Writes Press

When this review is over you might not believe that I was rooting for this memoir. The fact is that I wanted to like this book and I made it to the last page. The thing is I just don't think it is a good book. I understand why it is marketed as "A Fateful Year in the Crosshairs of Race in America." Certainly, it is a better hook than "An awkward year in a college freshman's life," but that subtitle would have been more accurate.

Look Bloomington is my hometown, my father was a professor at IU, without that connection to the history of the community I grew up in I would never have made it through this book. This could have been a very important look at a historic moment in a turbulent time at Indiana University. You see Bloomington is now a liberal and progressive center of a very red state in Indiana. The transformation that happened since this author arrived at a very racist college town to what it would become is interesting. The problem is we don't see that transformation, we just see a freshman find a bunch of problems and not return. In fact the story doesn't even really give an arc to the person at the heart of the story. I suspect that the author found herself while at Berkley but we are kind of just told in the bio, not in the actual story.

Meri Henriques Vahl came to Bloomington in 1963 and became the first white student at IU to be roommates with two black students. She also got involved in the protest of Alabama governor and ultra-racist George Wallace. Sounds interesting right? Yep, that would make a fascinating book, instead, we get page after page of her day to day life like signing up for classes, bad dorm food and awkward dates with an asshole radical and her crush on the head of folk music club on campus.

WHAT?????

Look I get it that she was writing a memoir, but she had to know that her observations and what she saw around her were more interesting and important to history than how nervous she was about music school auditions or the hunky graduate student she had a crush on. Her roommates had the far more interesting experience and I found myself wishing that I was reading Pixie's memoir instead. After a year the author left IU and missed out on the very radical activism and change that came in the years that followed. Now that is a story I would like to read...

Good thing there is a non-fiction book called Dissent in the Heartland by Mary Ann Wynkoop, that is the book I think people interested in the history of race relations and Indiana should read. I admit I was hoping for a memoir from someone in that position. I am certainly not upset I read this book, I got a good picture of this woman's experience. It just seems a little bit of unintentional white privilege and hubris that she spent so much time on her dating life and not the fascinating story she was so close to. I understand she might not have known many of the details but that is what you do research for.

In the acknowledgments, the author points out that many publishers passed on this book and I see why. Whoever wrote the back cover description did a great job selling this book, I just wish we got to read THAT book.

Book Review/ Podcast episode: The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick

The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Paperback, 259 pages

Published June 1992 by Vintage (first published October 1962)

Hugo Award for Best Novel (1963)

Tähtivaeltaja Award (1993)

Multi-episodes series of Dickheads coming soon dedicated the Man in The High Castle. The novel and the Amazon series.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Book Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

Florida by Lauren Groff

Hardcover, 275 pages

Published June 2018 by Riverhead

National Book Award Finalist for Fiction (2018)

Kirkus Prize Nominee for Fiction (2018)

OK this book is a tad bit out of my wheelhouse as I am a horror and Science Fiction critic and writer. I like to read genre and while I consider myself a consumer of the smarter end of that spectrum I don't generally read "literature." By that I mean the stuff that is put on the literature shelves in Powell's books. In the eight years, I lived in Portland and shopped at Powell's I only bought Brian Evenson books out of that section. So let's face it I am not the target audience here.

I picked up Flordia because Dan Bloom the Cli-fi Blogger mentioned it on his blog. As an author of a Climate change novel myself, I was interested to read the state of the art by authors writing about it. I knew nothing else about it or the author. I went in so cold I thought it was a novel as I started reading it.

First thing I can say is that Lauren Groff is a great writer I can tell already. This book took a little bit to hook me but once I got into it I was sold on her ability. Her use of language is so strong and evocative that I am positive I never want to live in Florida. I don't think I could pay this book a higher compliment. The heat, the humidity, the snakes, the mold the dipping uncomfortable swamp living dripping off the pages.

as with any short story collection, there are stories of varying strength and weakness. The first story was not the best opener in my opinion. It was a great example of how to write a setting, but the vague character that seemed to be an author stand it didn't work for me. That said at that point I thought I was reading the first chapter of a novel. The second story was one of the strongest of the collection. "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners" is a great vivid tale that could have sustained a novel. The setting and characters were rich and stick with you like something that doesn't quite wash off your hands.

I don't know if it was an intentional theme but Groff appears to share my fear of the creeping effect of climate change. That is what interested me in this book and so it should not be a surprise that the stories that focused on such impacted me the most. My other favorites "Flower Hunters" and "Snake stories" were favorites. I don't remember the title of the story set in the storm but that one showed that Groff knows how to add suspense something, not all MFA literature types can do.

Overall I liked this book and the best thing I can say is that I intend to track down her novel at some point. Climate change is a horror as great as the nuclear threat my generation lived with as children. The difference is it is a slowly creeping up on us. It is a monster in the shadows reaching out to grab up. It is not a jump scare but a building suspense. Lauren Groff captures this with subtly through most of the pages of this book.

Mostly she is doing this surgery with a scalpel, but a couple times the hammer comes out. "She is no longer frightened of reptiles, she who is afraid of everything. She is afraid of climate change."

Don't miss out.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Book Review: Elevation by Stephen King

Elevation by Stephen King

Hardcover, 146 pages

Published October 2018 by Scribner

I was surprised by this one. Normally there is a lot of build up for the release of a new Stephen King novel. considering King is known for doorstoppers like Under The Dome and IT that top 1,000 pages this will get called a novella. It is technically beyond the novel word count. So this kinda slipped out and SK fans were given a late 2018 treat.

The reviews so far are pretty mixed but I was surprised to see a few negative reviews from serious constant readers on twitter in the early days of this release. I tried to go into with an open mind and judge for myself. I am not sure why there were so many negative comments about this short novel, it is not really amazing or anything like that. No one is going to accuse it of being groundbreaking.

I really did not like The Outsider, I am not one to give Uncle Steve a pass just because I love him as a human being. I mean I watch all the interviews, I love all his tweets. I greatly respect the man but write as much as he does, take the risks that he does you are going to put out a stinker or two.

This story is dedicated to Richard Matheson and it has that feel. I enjoyed it. I didn't love it but I also thought some critical comments were a little overblown. sure it was sentimental, that is a strength of the story. I thought it was unfairly the goodreads choice for horror novel of the year. Not just because it should have been Tremblay's Cabin at the End of the World, but this is pretty light horror. I mean it is horror, it would be scary to be the main character or his friends, but this novel is more in the vein of the Green Mile or Shawshank. I mean we need Darabont on this movie right away.

Elevation is the story of a man named Scott, an older gentleman who lives in Castle Rock and discovers that he is losing weight quickly. His body is not changing, nor is doing anything different. He is simply wasting away slowly. You might be thinking this is like Thinner, but it is a very different story. The B story centers a Lesbian couple that moves to Castle Rock to open a vegetarian restaurant. Scott is the first to break the ice and really accept the couple for who they are.

I know some thought the liberal political stuff was heavy-handed. I have read some reviews that found this unnecessary, but I think they are overestimating the progression of rural Maine, and suggest that King is probably right to send this message. Subtle or not. It comes off heavy-handed to those who live in liberal areas, but I don't think Castle Rock is super liberal. Scott's compassion towards Missy and Diedre is a core to the book that gives weight to the story. (Pun intended)

I understand how some readers might be annoyed with stereotypes that the characters fill, and that is a valid criticism. I certainly had that problem last year with Sleeping Beauties (co-written with his song Owen)that novel reinforced so many patriarchal stereotypes it really hurt my experience. If you want to talk about a novel with cringe-worthy generational tactless politics Sleeping beauties is much worse. The number of times Scott the POV character pointed out how great Deidre's legs were hurt worse each time.

I read many comments that the characters were one-dimensional, while they are cookie cutter characters who fulfill silly stereotypes they at least growth in multi-dimensions. I think most people are not getting that this story is about what it feels like to fade away with age. Scott as a character also learns quite a bit about himself and in the short pages all the characters have an arc, a simple one but they all grew.

I know I already mentioned Tremblay's Cabin at the End of the World. Not only is it a better horror novel, but it carries some of the say Trump-era desire to humanize marginalized people and does it with more subtly. It feels natural in that book. Far be it for me to tell King what to do but it seems this book was banged out, perhaps sitting on this draft for a bit and coming back to would have made it better.

I liked the story, I liked the metaphor for old age but the book lost two stars in my ratings for all the cringey stuff. I know it ruined the experience for many readers. It didn't ruin my experience but it certainly hurt it. I think if you go in prepared for it, it might not hurt as bad. The thing is there are at least 20 books in the genre alone this year I would suggest you read before this one. recommended for Stephen King completionists only.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Book Review: Dry by Neal Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman

Dry by Neal Shusterman, and Jarrod Shusterman

Hardcover, 390 pages

Published October 2nd 2018 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

I am on record as saying that the movement for Cli-fi fiction is the most important fiction movement we have going. So in an effort to put my eyes where my mouth is I am reading lots of climate fiction from this year. In that effort I saw lots of buzz about this YA novel called Dry. Adults don't be scared away from this book. Yes compared to the *finger under nose* high lit novel I just read and reviewed this is a simple story with young adult motivations. I am sure that will annoy many of us adult readers. Teenagers can come off as annoying to adults in fiction but that often happens when they are written accurately. I give the authors credit for putting a focus on young readers because ultimately they are the next generation and getting them to care about Climate action is important.

I knew nothing but the title and that it is about Climate change before digging in. This book is as much Climate horror as it is Cli-fi. Once I dug into the plot I was very excited by the concept. This novel takes place mostly in Orange County south of LA during an event called the great Tap-Out. Early in the novel Arizona and Nevada decide to turn off the water coming from the Colorado river. In this sense it is like a YA successor to Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife. That book dealt with the political aspects of the river and the management of it.

This novel is about the tap and fresh water being shut down for Southern California. This is a great set-up for a survival story and that is what is at the heart of this story. A group of teenagers cut off from their parents as well as the most basic aspect of life - water fight for survival. The authors have constructed a tightly plotted story with fully realized characters in this environment.

The story cuts between five survivors but most of the pages center around Alyssa and the neighbor Kelton who has had a crush on her. Both teenagers are typical when suddenly the water is gone. This is quite a change of lifestyle for the characters and in 350 pages we feel like we have gone on a journey.

It is impossible to read this book and not get the message that our place in the ecosystem here in southern California is delicate. To someone one not familiar with these issues it might seem the authors are over-blowing this crisis. The reality one of the most tightly populated parts of our country depends mostly on one river. I am very aware of this because of the research I did for my latest novel also a southern California Cli-fi novel Ring of Fire.

Look I really, really dug this novel but that is partly because it is somewhat of a spiritual cousin to my novel. While Dry takes place in The OC and mine in San Diego so much of the themes are similar. Dry is more tightly focused on the water issue, and has no supernatural/ more out there Sci-fi elements. None the less I think the two books compliment each other in message, geography and bleak fight for survival.

Is it perfect? I loved it enough to give it five stars but I had little problems. Anyone who reads my reviews knows I am not a huge fan of first person narrative. In this case where the POV shifts the first person style made even less sense. Without spoilers I also think the epilogue undercuts the power of the 350 pages before it. I think the authors blinked like Speilberg did in his War of the Worlds.

None the less I think all the good far outweighs my tiny nitpicks. Dry is an effective horror novel, YA or not it is an important novel for our time. It deserves to be on the shelf next to eco-horror classics like The Sheep Look Up. The novel does all the things it is supposed to do in telling a story, but the bottom line is you will be haunted by this book when you close it for the last time. The reason is it will be impossible to read this book and not think about what Water means. You can't turn on the tap ever again without it being there somewhere in your mind.

This book should be read.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

The Overstory by Richard Powers
Hardcover, 502 pages Published April 2018 by W. W. Norton Company

I had never heard of Richard Powers or that this book was short-listed for the Man-Booker prize when I put the book on hold on it at the library. At the time I saw it mentioned in a tweet by Dan Bloom who promotes Cli-fi fiction. My hold took three months to come through and by the time it was here I had forgotten about it or why I wanted it so I went in cold.

The Overstory is high literature, the kind I respect but don't often read. I like things about this kind of fiction but generally prefer a story told simply. There is nothing simple about the prose or narrative at the heart of this book. The first one hundred pages of this novel could easily lose a reader like me but I sensed a inter-weaving plot and it was enough to hook me for a slow burn.

That first part of the novel connects several unrelated people and is more story collection than novel or so it seems. The only connection these people share is to the natural world to be more exact they are connected to Trees. This book is very much about trees, and look I love and understand the power of trees but this book really goes overboard on the tree the parts of the book are named "Roots,"“Trunk,” “Crown,” and “Seed,”

The characters go from having no connection to being deeply entangled in the radical environmental movement. Woven into the story is the characters deeply held convictions that the earth needs defended. It was cool that so much attention and energy was given to the importance of Trees as needing ethical standing. The characters are really well written and given honest feeling motivations. This important because in movies and book that depict animal and eco activists they are often made to look really silly. The movies 12 Monkeys and 28 Days Later are perfect examples.

While the book feels bloated and repetitive at times there is no doubting that Powers is a great writer. The prose is often beautiful balancing the wonders of nature with the conflict of human beings. There are moments when the book has you ready to do anything to save the planet and pages later feel hopeless at the futility.

This is no monkeywrench gang (which is a better if you want to experience this world - better yet Eco-warriors by Rik Scare) none the less this book is much prettier prose wise and will reach many more people. I am not sure this book will have this effect on everyone but the depth of feelings I felt reading the book ranged from anger, hope and then the book brought to me the crushing reality that most activism as well intentioned as it is will ultimately fail and be crushed by this culture. I think the purpose of the story was the wonder and power of trees and the importance of fighting, and I hope that comes through.

I think most will read this and feel the call to defend nature what ever the costs and hope it does. Either way anyone who enjoys eco-fiction or the importance of the Cli-fi movement should give this a shot. Powers is certainly a better writer than me, but I have to say he focused the story on elements I wouldn't have and missed things that help connect me to an experience. I mean the horror writer in mean thought the whole scene with the pepper-spray and the lock down is something I have witnessed with my own eyes and watched on video and this book didn't begin to capture the feeling or horror of it.

This book probably is 200 pages longer than it NEEDS to be but if you except that aspect of it this is power and important story.With the way humans treat the planet there really is no issue more important and if that doesn't win this book awards it should at least have your attention.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Podcast Book Review: Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick

Vulcan's Hammer by Philip K Dick
Paperback, 165 pages Published August 2004 by Vintage (first published September 1960)

Dickheads podcast!

PKD's 7th novel Vulcan's Hammer is considered by many, including Dick himself, to be his worst. But one of our three Dickeads counts it as his favorite so far. Can you guess which one? Plus: Salty ass supercomputers. Bread & Butter Sci-Fi. And a walking simulator.