Archive for the ‘Literary Criticism’ Category

John Irving. Avenue of Mysteries. Simon and Schuster. New York. 2015. 460 pp.

So, John Irving has written a new book, Avenue of Mysteries. This was not a book atop my must read list. Truth to tell, I don’t like John Irving’s writing much. As I read in the jacket bio his “all-time best selling novel, in every language” is A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book I found almost distasteful. I had to force myself to finish it. Nothing much in it worked for me.

images-1I brought home Avenue of Mysteries promising myself I could just stop if I wanted to; I wasn’t in school anymore. I am longer compelled to read Irving, just because Time magazine notes “He is as close as one gets to a contemporary Dickens in the scope of his celebrity and the level of his achievement.” Besides, even reviews of Avenue of Mysteries have been less than five-star. Some reader/reviewers had flat out given up, even after mentioning they’ve loved every other of Irving’s books.

Surprise! What I found was a book of rare language, amazingly colorful larger-than-life characters, and some plot premises so absurd I had to fall in love. It didn’t hurt that this book has undercurrents of magical realism casting its spell beginning with a Mexican setting with suitable miracles preformed by various “Our Ladies”. But it is the characters and their development that has such a latin ring. Irving uses magical realism’s method of repetition of the full names of characters with just a handful of substitute descriptors for each (e.g. the main characters,  a limping Juan Diego and his mind-reading younger sister Lupe, are described repeatedly as “the dump kids”). Catholicism plays a pivotal role, as does the circus, characters who don’t appear in photos taken of them, ghostly veterans, transvestites, and dogs, lots of dogs.

At some points I felt I could be reading a novel based on a Fellini movie rather than John Irving, originally from New England, now from Toronto. The book is overdone at times for sure. But the rhythm of dialog, the zany cast and the tragedy cum comedy kept me pushing on to his conclusion: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”

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Early Cover

Early Cover

O Pioneers! Willa Cather. originally published in 1913. For this review I used the Vintage Classic Edition. 1992. Random House. New York. 159 pp.

This is my third reading of O Pioneers! The first was in my hazy teenage years, probably for an English class. I have no particular remembrance of it.

My second reading was in the early 1980s when I enjoyed a re-acquaintance with Willa Cather as I read through all of her books (oddly except for One of Ours, the one for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922. It remains unread.) The final tragedy is what I took away from that reading, complete with tears. What I forgot entirely was the redemptive quality of the final sequence.

In this, the third reading, I came away with perhaps my deepest connection to the plot of O Pioneers! as well as an underlining of what makes Willa Cather’s writing so powerful and unique—her acute sensitivity to the land. Her specific connection to it, her ability to carefully select language which describes the land with heart-aching resonance, and its singular importance in the pioneer history of the US.

Some might make the observation that her humans seem somewhat less fully formed that that character which is space in Nebraska she calls the Divide. I don’t agree.

It’s hard to know exactly how American pioneers really acted. The stereotypic stoic hearty plainsmen and women, like those painted in O Pioneers may actually be accurate. Whether or not, the main characters, Alexandra Bergson, Emil Bergson, Marie Swoboda and Carl Lundstom, are sufficiently nuanced to carry the story forward comfortably. The story’s flash of passion, which is more “real” than most love affairs in fiction, makes it that much more moving.

The copy I used was a discard from the local library. The reader, judging by the simplistic notes made in the margins, made me think back to my first reading which was probably as shallow as this teenager’s. Still, she/he did notice the prominence of the land as an essential separate character.

And it was delightful to read where her feminist hackles were raised. “Sexist!!” was often penciled into the margins, especially when Alexandra—actually the brains in the Bergson family—was domineered by her rather mentally plodding brothers. It was a valuable reminder to me that I generally gloss over overt male dominance of women which appears so often in books. I’m certain it wasn’t a topic discussed in my mid-60s’ suburban English classroom. Still, while I now usually think of it as representative of another time, it does make me think about how the acceptability of gender inequality remains deeply imbedded. Like so many other uncomfortable truths our society is being forced to face these days, the dismissal inherent in the term “political correctness” used to describe what is actually gross insensitivity quickly shading into covert inequality allows even our national politicians to duck behind this facade of “mere semantics” to refuse to face and begin to remedy their own prejudices and biases.

Of course the beauty of O Pioneers isn’t overshadowed by the ham-handed Bergson boys or their twenty-first century counterparts. In the end, it is the land and Alexandra and Carl’s embracing of it that gives O Pioneers! its lovely glow.

As Alexandra remarks to Carl in the final scene: “We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it—for a little while.”

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A combination of health and heat has greatly limited travel opportunities this year. So I’ve chosen to leave the highway to pursue another route—armchair travel, aka traveling at home.

Whenever I let my reading wander I find myself in places I didn’t know existed. A recent trip to the library got me started along the Oregon Trail. First with Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, his twenty-first century re-creation of an 1800s odyssey along the Trail using old style mules pulling a covered wagon. (See 8/30/15 post). Following that, was a review of the original book titled The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman written in 1849. (See 9/6/15 post.)

220px-Willa_Cather_ca._1912_wearing_necklace_from_Sarah_Orne_JewettThese books helped me throw my net a little wider by expanding “the west” that I wander to include the pioneer states of the 1800s, especially Nebraska and Kansas, in their early days as “western” as definitions went. Heck, I may even throw in Missouri, my state of birth, and original jumping off place for those heading out to “see the elephant”, the then unknown American West.

The stories of the prairie, homesteading, success, and failure on the western Great Plains are full of humanity, understatement, and hardship. Who better to take off to “see the elephant” with than one of its earliest champions and one of the very finest of American authors, Willa Cather.

Her gravestone reads:
December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947
“. . . that is happiness; to be dissolved
into something complete and great.”
From My Antonia

Coming next, reviews of her prairie trilogy: O’ Pioneers, Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

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All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. WW. Norton and Co. New York. 2015. 354 pp.

To look at the rise in twentieth century environmentalism in the West, David Gessner chooses two formidable voices: Wallace Stegner, novelist who penned the Pulitzer- winning Angle of Repose, essayist and coiner of that most memorable of descriptorsof the West, the “geography of hope”; and Edward Abbey, the merry prankster author of numerous novels including most famously the Monkey Wrench Gang and the formative memoir Desert Solitaire.9780393089998_300

As Gessner ranges across the West in search of iconic locations these two authors have lived in and written about, he uses excerpts from their writings as well as extensive interviews with experts as well as people who knew one or the other as friends and colleagues. It’s a huge journey, starting at Edward Abbey’s childhood Pennsylvania, then dipping down for a visit to Wendell Berry in Kentucky who knew them both, then on to Saskatchewan where Wallace Stegner spent many of his most important childhood years. Then Gessner takes the reader deeply “Out West”, visiting ecological high spots which were critical to each writer’s world view, from Arches and Glen Canyon to Stanford and the University of New Mexico.

There is certainly a lot of meat to digest in this book. Gessner obviously did his homework and he brings the two characters into sharp relief, both personally and in how they inspired future Western environmentalists. Some may have chosen Abbey’s model of “monkey wrenching”, working outside the box by physically trying to stop odious development (think sugar in gas tanks). Others may be drawn to Stegner’s moderated voice, a call to work within the system by describing in heartfelt but restrained writings about what our country stood to lose by that development.

While Gessner presents the two in a “compare and contrast” mode (Stegner the “sticker”, Abbey the firebrand). It seems to me a slightly wacky stretch that emphasizes their personal temperaments and styles rather than what overarching truths they tell that sets them apart as two of the greatest voices for preservation of western wilds. Of course they are—it’s just that they make such strange bedfellows. The book seems to unnecessarily overreach to point out their differences—I take away “button-downed” Stegner vs. “wildman” Edward Abbey, neither especially enviable characters. I’d rather revere them both for their common passion for the West and their lifelong devotion to its preservation.

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The Water Museum: Stories by Luis Alberto Urrea. Little Brown and Co. New York. 2015. 257 pp.

Luis Alberto Urrea’s latest short story collection The Water Museum has a little bit for everyone. As other reviewers have pointed out, there’s drugs and sex and even a little rock n’ roll. I’ve talked about Urrea  and two of his earlier books, Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America (https://wanderwest.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/luis-alberto-urrea-speaks/) and have read the marvelous Into the Beautiful North. I’m a true fan of his novels.

I’ve also read short pieces before, particularly in Orion, where I greeted his places “out west” not “back east” (the Orion staple US landscape) with gladness, and not a little wonderment about what those New England types made of home boys, low riders and alligators. (He did a memorable piece set in Louisiana; granted it’s not the high plains or the Pacific Coast but it sure as heck isn’t western MA.) He now has a column called Wastelander, appropriate for his often blasted out urban landscapes and polluted streams as well as his characters, who possess equally blasted out souls.

WATERMUSEUM2These are the characters that inhabit the short stories in this collection. I don’t think there was one that had a happy ending; and that’s just alright for the folks who populate his world. That can make reading Urrea’s stories bleak at times. But it’s often bleak softened with a sly grin or a wink, especially if the main character is an overlooked, misunderstood “I” who’s trying to get the swing of making it in a tough world.

The most thought-provoking essay for me is the title story: The Water Museum. As much of the West parches, this is a particularly timely allegorical tale about school kids who know water only as it originates from the tank of a water truck. They are taken on a school field trip to “experience the real thing”—even though it’s only a simulation of waterfalls and flowing rivers in a fake children’s “discovery” museum. Their reactions are fascinating, and not a little frightening.

Luis Alberto Urrea is a member of the Latino Writers Hall of Fame and has been inducted by many reviewers into what I consider the Writers Hall of Glowing Reviews. I think he’s a fantastic, unique writer, who inhabits a a space exactly right, carved out by him for himself. At least I haven’t read anybody call him a blue-eyed, red haired Mexican-American Thoreau yet. I guess maybe that’s too much of a stretch, even for reviewers who have been known to get lost in a swamp of superlatives. (Think “magisterial”, “pitch perfect”, “a must read.”)

I thank heavens for that.

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In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape by Gretel Ehrlich. National Geographic. Washington, DC. 2010. 319 pp.

6200574In the Empire of Ice distills Gretel Ehrlich’s experiences accumulated through multiple extended stays with the native cultures which circle the Arctic—from Siberia, through Alaska and Canada to Greenland. It presents an eloquent scientific and oh-so-human personal lament to an almost mystically alluring landscape and its adapted human culture, both of which are quickly being destroyed by global warming.

Here, living in sub-zero weather, small groups of indigenous people are still trying to follow their ancestral way: a traditional subsistence path which relies on marine mammals to supply everything from coats and house walls to vitamins and minerals generally derived from plant sources they don’t have. As marine mammals—narwhals and walrus as well as seals—migrate through the Arctic waters, natives from Siberia to Greenland traditionally use the frozen seas as their highways.

But the sea ice and the glaciers behind it are melting at increasingly alarming speeds. The Arctic provides a particularly heartbreaking example of the earth’s natural heating and cooling system gone awry, heat absorbing dark open water replacing reflective ice and snow surface. As the ice rapidly melts, traditionally nomadic hunters are forced to take more and more risks at the ice’s edge. Often they miss the migrations entirely and are reduced to participating in our place-settled, money-based economy to obtain necessary food and other staples. Now in some places dog sleds are being replaced by snowmobiles, breaking ancient bonds among humans and animals. It’s truly horrifying to read accounts of what these self-reliant, interrelated communitarian groups, (the type those few voices calling for sustainabie interconnected living yearn for) are losing, subsistence replaced by dependence as their traditional ways are literally melting away. While not minimizing the hardships, Ehrlich and her Inuit friends are obviously devoted to their old ways.

It is yet another clarion call to wake up to the truth of global warming. Will we hear This One and finally answer with bold action? I’m not optimistic but as Wendell Berry insists: “Hope is an obligation.”

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The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman. Harper-Collins. New York. 2008. 242 pg.

Alive in Necropolis. Doug Dorst. Penguin. New York. 2008. 437 pg.

Waiting for Gertrude. A Graveyard Gothic. Bill Richardson. St. Martin’s Press. 2001. 184 pg.

In celebration of Halloween, last month I decided to read books set in graveyards. I have already reviewed A Fine and Private Place. Alas, after an election that also felt like a cemetery tour, it’s taken me a while to get to reviewing these other three. Perhaps, in reading these books you may see prototypes of our current elected officials. That’s for you to decide.TheGraveyardBook_Hardcover_1218248432

The Graveyard Book, is a young adult (YA) book which follows a living human raised by the dead in a graveyard. Winner of the 2009 Newbery Award honoring the best American children’s book it joins such heady companions from my youth as Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. It ‘s a strong book, full of strange ghosts, malevolent pursuers and powerful protectors. Definitely a classic battle between good and evil.

2439336Alive in Necropolis follows a similar theme of a living person (in this case a cop) who can see the dead. This guy’s a beat patrolman for the city of Colma, CA, aka “ The City of Souls,” the true town in San Mateo which 1400 of the quick call home, as well as about 1.5 million who have gone on, and now rest in one of Colma’s 16 cemeteries. Again, it’s the good guy and helpful spirits vs. the bad ghosts who beat up or “root out” any spirit they’ve tired of.

Waiting for Gertrude is set in Paris’ famed Pere-Lachaise cemetery, a picaresque community of characters from the past: Moliere, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Maria Callas, Oscar Wilde and Chopin, Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust among other luminaries. In this case they have all been “translated” (re-incarnated) as cats. Some remain true to their original “calling” (e.g. Maria Callas, once a diva, always a diva) while others have taken on new roles: laundress, private investigator, tour guide. Central to the cast is Alice B. Toklas who has translated into a caterer of note (Hashish plays a spicy part in her most treasured recipes.) Alice is waiting, waiting, waiting for her beloved Gertrude (Stein) to translate. The cats—most of the females pregnant—are preparing for a Renaissance Revue to be held at midnight on Christmas Eve at the Columbarium Theatre. Against this backdrop, treasures have gone missing, and Marcel Proust, resident PI, has been retained to find them.352381

The Graveyard Book assumes a reader of previous deep immersion in the fantasy genre and thus able to recognize that various characters represent certain types of fantasy inhabitants. So while I read the book quite happily I completely missed most of the metaphoricals; for example there were werewolves. I didn’t realize that until, after reading the book, I read other reviews. I do this frequently after reading a book only to discover I’ve read too shallowly. Still, it does come as a put-down when I missed the symbolism in a YA book! So for all you fantasy fans, I think you’re going to love this book.

Alive in Necropolis skips the symbolism (I think) and goes for ghosts who did exist but perhaps were never household names, like Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a San Francisco heiress and patron of firemen, Lincoln Beachey, stunt aviator, and Ishi, last of the Yahi Indians, as well as bad guys like Doc Barker, bank robber. The extant policeman, Michael Mercer, replaces a cop who, it appears, died of fright although it is termed a heart attack, patrolling Colma and its 16 cemeteries. Mercer’s enlisted to aid the good ghosts in eliminating the bad ghosts even as he works on a crime among the living, the torture and abandonment of a teenager in one of the columbarium vaults. He also tries to deal with his erratic loves and life (He’s not called “Boy Thirteen” for nothing) and a partner who, rebuffed by a circus performer, turns to Zen for comfort. I think everything came to a close at the end. I doubt anyone lived happily ever but there were so many sub-plots and twists I lost count. Still, some were sufficiently interesting to keep me reading the book until its conclusion and a semi-messy ending is the stuff of life. So as a mock noir spoof, Necropolis, rates a read. FYI, it’s got a boatload of foul language, drinking, drugs and casual sex.

Last and definitely winner of the “most throwing caution to the winds” award, is Waiting for Gertrude. Filled with puns, double entendres and just plain hilarious situations it was both the best and the worst of the lot. If you are more than willing to suspend disbelief (is that a definition of fantasy?), this is definitely a book worth spending a rainy Oregon winter afternoon with. Told in letters, meeting minutes, notes, and musings, a little bit of Gertrude goes a long way. Rather than try to disentangle the plot, here are a few quotes from Alice B. Toklas which will give you the flavor:

“After my life on two legs ended and before my life on four began, there was long stretch of stasis…an endless novel whose pages bore only one word: Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. And then, without warning, the word was made flash.”

and lamenting the loss of the transformed Rossini, who became somewhat dotty as an ancient cat:

“I will miss him…the cubist nature of his conversations and his easy way with non sequiturs. ‘It all comes down to noodles,’ he might say, when the talk was about weather or rheumatism.”

All in all, a ribald romp, full of dazzling language and innuendo.

After this intensive, I think there is a reason why few novels are set in graveyards. They require too much infrastructure and supporting information to move along easily, as is illustrated by all these books in one way or another. In each the author has chosen a different backstory and approach. I would recommend all three, although none, in my opinion, matches Peter S. Beagle’s 1960 original, A Fine and Private Place.

At least they may provide amusement through the next Congressional session should you need even more than it’s bound to offer.

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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Co. New York, NY. 2014. 319 pp.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction has received glowing reviews since its release in February.

Her writing, is lucid, inviting, eclectic, engaging and in some instances downright, if only vicariously, exhausting for us armchair travelers as we tag along with her as she treks around the globe, hunting for examples of the story of mass extinctions. Generally biological time on earth has been divided into five great extinctions. The rise of homo sapiens, and our impact on the rest of the world is considered by Kolbert (and most field biologists) to have set the sixth great extinction in motion.

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobertKolbert makes an amazing number of stunning and mind-bogglingly depressing observations. Reviewers have marveled at her “objectivity” in presenting facts like this: “Today, amphibians enjoy the dubious distinction of being the world’s most endangered class of animals; it’s been calculated that the group’s extinction rate could be as much as forty-five thousand times higher than the background rate.” For facts as nightmarish as hers, a “hair on fire” approach would certainly not be out of order. Still, I can imagine two reasons for it: One is to let the facts speak for themselves, which to people like me, they do, elegantly and inarguably. The other, and probably equally potent, is that expressing any kind of emotion would give the idiot deniers of human-caused mass extinctions (much less climate change) the lead to dismiss out-of-hand as mere hysterical overreaction what is the frightening reality of what they are being presented with.

The one literary trick she uses I wish she would tone down is a New Yorker trademark in science writing, the interjection of information on personality and physical descriptions of the scientists which are generally novel but unenlightening. For example, one of people she interviews has differently colored eyes. I may be easily distracted, but I retained that factoid rather than the scientific discoveries those eyes had made.

Still this is a timely and important book whose major takeaway is precisely this:

“To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make more sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world.”

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The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry. Liveright, 2014. 196 pp. and

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—and How It Changed the American West by Jeff Guinn. Simon and Schuster. 2011. 392 pp.

18379039Larry McMurtry’s new novel The Last Kind Words Saloon is the latest take on Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the shoot-out at the OK Corral. The short novel of brief movie-scene-like chapters follows Wyatt and Doc through a series of escapades involving other Earp brothers, various “wives”, even Charlie Goodnight, eventually arriving in Tombstone. The famous “shoot-out” is dispensed with quickly, beginning with Wyatt remarking,“This is a damn waste of time” and ending 120 words later with three dead, two wounded, and Wyatt and Ike Clanton (who ran away) unscathed. Life went on. Dark humor prevails throughout; in the end we find Wyatt with wife Jessie broke in San Pedro.

McMurtry, with short and sweet completeness, creates an ironic, myth-busting take on “heroes”, who really never were. There are plenty of reviews out there—labeling the book everything from disappointing to  great. It’s sure a book worth reading, (one gratuitously grim recounting of an Apache raid  and a problematic cover notwithstanding) but not worth extended analysis. Although there is the skeleton of truth, 100 years and Hollywood’s extensive spin later, in The Last Kind Words Saloon a great storyteller appropriately re-tells the now mythic tale as a novel, where it feels it really belongs.9587101

Not so The Last Gunfight, a extended non-fiction wade through the “literature” and records of the Earps, their friends and enemies. The title immediately sets out an enormous challenge that Mr. Quinn spends almost 400 pages attempting to meet. While trying to make compelling arguments about Wyatt and Doc’s respective psychological motivations, Quinn ends up with an overzealous “deconstructed” remake of the same old story. By the end, it seems he’s presented  every detail short of dental records to make his point. By page 205 when readers arrive at the OK Corral shoot-out, I found myself rooting for a truly “deconstructed” result with everybody dead, not just the two McLaurys and Billy Clanton. Alas, the book has to complete the story which takes another 150-plus pages.

Still, if you’re a commited Tombstone aficionado, you may find some new nuggets of information (especially slang) in The Last Gunfight. Otherwise, if you only read one, make it McMurtry’s.

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All the Land to Hold Us: A Novel. Rick Bass. Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt. New York. 2013. 324 pp.

In 1970 Charles Reich wrote the runaway bestseller, The Greening of America. It was all about hippies and the new age coming and people living in peace and harmony. OK, that’s a slightly cynical synopsis but that’s how my pseudo-sophisticatedly 19-year-old self responded to it. He was talking about me (at least my cohort), and he seemed painfully naive to me, even then. But I doggedly persevered to the brutal end, 433 pages later. No lightbulbs went off; no aha moments. Oh geez, I thought then, When will I learn to stop reading when a book just isn’t working for me?

Well, about 10 years ago, as I began to see the arc of my life moving beyond its zenith, I started to drop novels if they didn’t move me within the first ten pages. Some even sooner. I embraced the idea that life is short and there are so many books to read…why read those that don’t speak to me?


The Cover’s Great!

Recently I saw Rick Bass’ All the Land to Hold Us was a finalist for the 2013 Orion Award for fiction. I figured it would be my chance to read the five starred must-read Bass, a hero in literary and environmental circles.

And I tried, I promise I tried desperately, to embrace this book, despite its tempo (painfully slow), its characters (unlikeable and unlikely), its narrative arc (I’m still not sure where I ended up.) But I soldiered on through 324 pages of salt miners, and oil and gas people and rogue elephants, even a lily-white (literally) sorta-heroine who cooks her naked self to skin cancer scavenging for valuable fossils at the edge of the Permian Basin. She thought it was her ticket out of that nowheresville named Odessa, Texas.

That part—that Welcome to Odessa, Nowheresville part—I could definitely grab onto. But the glowing reviews, most using the word “lush” at some point or other, made me ask, “Yeah, but have you ever Seen West Texas?” This is the heart of the problem I had with this book. No desert is lush: Lush is reserved, to me, for luxurious, almost overwhelming vegetation, and if writing is lush, it needs to include a lot of plants, not just paragraph long, intricately woven, “throw every word you’ve got at it” descriptive writing. Bass goes out of his way to point out exactly how Not Lush West Texas is even as the descriptions of stark salt flats and rocky geological strata fill page after page.

I was particularly taken aback by a comparisons to Faulkner. Faulkner’s prose fit his Mississippi kudtzu-strangled ruined-plantation landscape. Bass’ West Texas, not so much.

The other characterization, magical realism, doesn’t work either. Surreal gets closer but it’s still hard to integrate giant puppets (even if there is a redux of the earlier elephant) with fundamentalist small town life that it felt to me, too often, like I was reading two books that the author was told to convert to one.

Honestly I wish I liked this book. I believe I’m exactly the demographic Bass is aiming for. And yes, I agree there is sometimes exceptional writing. But nothing matches. The location, the characters, the story line, they don’t make sense together. In fact even its nod toward environmental issues associated with oil and gas development seems to come too late with too little.

Wow, I guess Mr. Bass really did hit a nerve with me. That, in and of itself, is quite the accomplishment for any novel set in West Texas.

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