A Land More Kind Than Home

I’ve often wondered how many people quote Thomas Wolfe in their books. Either the title or some dedication or other such thing. Seems to be a trend. I’ve never been a huge Wolfe fan, though I’ll admit a deep love of both the grave marker and the title of Look Homeward Angel and the John Milton poem he quotes for it. “Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth: And O Ye dolphins waft the hapless youth.” (Lycidas 163-164) But, I digress even before I begin.

Wiley Cash’s first novel bears a title that comes from the Wolfe’s pen. “Something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. Saying: To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth”—You Can’t Go Home Again.

A Land More Kind Than Home

A land more kind than home. There is some kindness in this story, and surprising kindness as well, but there’s some sincere hardness as well. Any good story has both and you can’t really have redemption without them.

This is a story told by three different narrators; a young boy, the sheriff and an older woman. Their voices are as familiar to me as my own family perhaps because Cash does an excellent job of capturing the Madison County speech and heart. He does so with all of the characters but particularly with the female narrator, the turn of whose phrases feel like comfortable, well worn paths in the memories of my father’s people.

The narrative centers around the events at a small store-front church in Marshal, NC. The first sign that something is happening there that shouldn’t be is the fact that the windows are covered over with newspaper so no one can see inside. This is what is often called a ‘snake-handling church’, however it is more than this practice that makes it into something quite unlike a church at all. The pastor, Carson Chambliss, is a holy man with a messiah complex as dangerous as a pit of rattlesnakes. At his church there is a fine line between being saved and being lost; healing and death. A fine and blurry line. Along with Pastor Chambliss there are Ben and Julie, their two children Jess and Christopher, their alcoholic and violent grandfather Jimmy, Sheriff Clem Barefield who’s memory of the son he lost some years before returns with force, and the Sunday school teacher and midwife Adelaide. These make up the cast of this southern gothic small mountain town epic.

As things start to go wrong at the church with an unfortunate accidental death of an older parishioner due to a snake bite, Addie decides that the only thing she can do in the face of this dangerous situation is to get the children out of the worship service. She becomes an enemy of Chambliss then, as does anyone who contradicts him and his borderline black magic power disguised as Christian faith. Chambliss and some of his church members seem more like mafia thugs than anything else but his charismatic personality seems to draw people into his spell. Especially a wife distanced from her husband and desperate to find some healing for her son’s disability.

In one way the ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ of this novel seem easily distinguishable and underlined in bright, broad strokes, but in another, not so much. Storms and other weather activities provide the obvious backdrop to increased tension and the heightening of conflict. Chambliss, surrounded by snakes and half covered in burns, is clearly the bad guy and there’s not much of anything redeemable about him. Addie is equally clearly the good woman put in a bad place and trying her best to fight the evil the only way she can. So, too, is this true of the Sheriff and the vulnerable brothers, Jess and Christopher, who seem to be basically good despite difficulties and challenges. And yet, there are other characters here that are far more ambiguous. Jimmy Hall, far and away my favorite character, is one of those who we expect to see a certain way in a black and white world but who may not be purely either one.

For the record, I have no idea why Jimmy is my favorite character. There isn’t any good reason for it. He just is. Perhaps it is because there is, amid a whole lot of waste, voilence and regretable choices, something that is redeemable and hopeful. When I read a good story, I sometimes wonder who the story is really about. Good stories are not always truly about the main characters and this book in particular is ambiguous as to who the “main” character or characters actually are in the first place. But maybe it is Jimmy who is looking for a land more kind than home.

I definitely recommend this book. It is not what I would call light summer reading by any means, but it is well worth the time and emotion to read it! I would probably never have noticed it had it not been for the recommendation of someone else, and for that I am grateful. It is a good, solid first novel and I look forward to seeing what Wiley Cash will write in the future.

+As a seperate aside for any pastors or church leaders who might be reading this review: I highly recomend this as a cautionary tale. It is a good example of a pastoral ego out of control and the evil (and I do mean evil) that can be wrought by it. While we would like to think that this is fiction and would never happen in a church we know, especially if our congregations don’t do anything as extreem as incorporating snakes in worship as a test of faith, we are fooling ourselves if we do not recognize the true source of danger here as not a serpent but a human being.

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Remarkable Creatures

Quite behind on some book reviews and a few other update posts. Today we’ll start with a review of Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.

 

I read this book as part of one of the three or so bookclubs of which I am a part. Chevalier also wrote Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn, among others. The group in the bookclub wanted to read something a bit lighter than some of the heavier, meatier things we had all been reading lately. This was a good choice for just that. When I say light, however, I don’t mean that it wasn’t worthwhile, merely that it wasn’t too elaborate or complex nor was the material itself emotionally dense.

Based on the real life of Mary Anning, a fossil hunter from the 1800’s whose discoveries contributed to the continued scientific analysis of ancient creatures and their, as well as our, place in history. Along with Mary there is her somewhat unlikely friend, Miss Elisabeth Phillpot, a spinster among spinsters who has moved to Mary’s area of the English Coast in her and her sisters’ marriageless exile and discovered her own love of ‘curies’ or the fossils that she discovers ‘upon beach.’

The story is about both the amazing discoveries made by Mary and the friendship between two women of different ages and social groups. It was a well told story revealing many sides to the restrictions and freedoms in the lives of women of different social strata and shone light on the obvious disregard given to women of the time from the scientific community. There is a bit of Jane Austin here, not only because it is set in the same time and deals with the same financial, social and emotional issues she addressed, but also in the general flavor of the novel. Miss Phillpot’s internal commentary on being a woman, and particularly a spinster, in the world with comments like, ‘It is so tiresome being a lady’ seem to be a gentle tip of the bonnet to the Austin canon.

In all, a good and worthwhile read. I read this not too long after reading Room (though with some others in between) and there was a common theme, albeit dramatically different setting, of the helplessness of these women and seeking freedom from circumstances beyond their control.

In general, I have had a difficult time getting into books lately. I read a portion of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and while the character of Lisbeth is definitely compelling and, in her dark way, heroic, it took forever for me to feel I was in the story. Also, I had a similar experience with Stones From The River. Both of those are good books, but you must begin them with a sense of commitment. Remarkable Creatures was no different. However, I am currently reading a book that on the first page I was curious, by the 10th I was asking questions and shortly thereafter I was hooked. Now that’s the kind of book I’ve been looking for! The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

 

 
 
Reviews forthcoming on
Light Boxes
 
 

The Knife of Never Letting Go: Chaos Walking: Book One
 

Show-off Squid

When I was in my twenties, I had a friend who was a drummer. He taught me to wear earplugs which was a very good idea, but that’s another story. Anyhow, he was a big fan of jazz and jazz musicians and one evening he decided to educate me on what a jazz drummer was all about. He played several videos for me of incredible musicians, each one topping the previous, until one final climactic drummer who was quite frankly dazzling. His skill was unprecedented, his style unique. His mastery of rhythm and his instrument was so complete that his performance was entirely impromptu and spontaneously created out of the very moment.

It was so dazzling and masterful that it seemed to never end. Literally. It kept going on and on and on and on. I thought it would never end. Really, please, let it end!

It was too much.

I thought of this particular performance and the masterful drummer when I read China Mieville’s Kraken.

Kraken
 
Mieville is undoubtedly a wordsmith of masterful proportions. If size matters, then his vocabulary should provide him with indomitable confidence. I’m sure I am not the first to notice it by any means, but let me be clear: China Mieville has big words. And he knows how to use them.
 
It is rare for me to have to look up a word, particularly in a fiction book, though it does happen. However, dictionary diving is not at all uncommon when reading a Mieville. It is good to stretch your mind and gain new verbage and he’s really the guy to do it because it does not seem that he is just Thesaurus Boy. You get the feel that this bald, pierced, menacing, son-of-Shel-Silverstein looking guy would use this same vocabulary with you while drinking with you in a bar. In a world where we all read so-called young adult fiction* (Harry Potter, Twilight [wretch], Hunger Games, etc etc) and the local newspapers are typically written on a 5th grade reading level, his books are anomalies. In no few ways are they welcome anomalies as well.
 
However, there is a reason why Mieville reminds me of that drummer so many years ago. There is a point at which it is beyond me. Not because I cannot get the words–I get them or can get them. Not because I cannot or am unwilling to learn and stretch–I am. There simply comes a point at which the story is so bogged down with this particular kind of word use that is becomes inaccessible and it makes the writer seem like he’s showing off too much. The brambles and briars of unfamiliar words that catch on the tails of imagination can become either a way to prick up the mind and heart or a trap that ensnares us in inescapable undergrowth. The story may go on ahead on a trail in front of us we can make out but cannot follow and we are left behind.
 
In spite of saying this, I am solidly on the side of recommending this book as a good read. It is not light hearted or easy reading but it is quite good. Mieville is a fine, though obtuse, writer and storyteller. The first few chapters seemed draggy and it was unclear to me what this cephalopod specialist scientist named Billy Harrow with a personality I did not find at all interesting was actually up to. He seemed rather boring and irritating. Next thing you know, some bizarre man and a boy, Goss and Stubby, were unfolding themselves out of a box and grabbing Billy by the throat. Yes, I said unfolding themselves out of a box. Goss then opens up his mouth and swallows Billy’s friend in one gulp. This is followed by a talking tattoo, various magical happenings, cults, a semi secret government organization designed to fight the occult, cults and occult cults and let us not forget the squid. The giant squid and the baby gods and the Kraken. Is you head spinning now? Mine was. So once you get past about chapter eight, it’s one amazing ride. Hold your breath and dive in for a whole different world.
 
I was irritated by a particular tension building device that was used frequently in the book. Mieville is pretty good with dialog, but he needlessly piled on too much of it when building up to end a chapter.  Oh no it isn’t. Who is it? You’re kidding, it can’t be. Who is it? There’s just no way. Who is it? I can’t believe it could be them. Who is it? No one is going to believe this. Who is it?
 
Oh never mind, at this point I don’t care any more. But that’s just a pet peeve of mine.
 
So, if you want a book that will expand your vocabulary and make you feel really smart when you use the words you learn in a conversation with mere mortals, a story of squid (and really, who doesn’t like squid?), occult cults, magic and a bizarre step outside of the mainstream boring world, read Kraken. Your mind will be different for having read it, that’s for certain!
 
 
Oh, and while you’re at it, you could always have some Kraken Rum, too.
 
*Please note, this is NO slam against what is called ‘young adult fiction’ at all. Some excellent writers there and pretty good storytelling as well. Glad to see apparent age categories do not perpetually bind a book to a limited audience.
 

The Circus Arrives Without Warning

http://www.theliteraryplatform.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/THE-NIGHT-CIRCUS-jacket-e1306491176869.jpg

I will confess that I am almost always a sucker for a really great book cover. I have countless paperback sci-fi fantasy novels that have cover art by Thomas Canty. Most of them are ok, some are great but I’ll admit it right here and now: I bought them because of the awesome covers.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was also such a book. The elegant black and white cover with brilliant red accents and silver swirl flourishes charmed me from across the room. A graceful hand holds an elaborate set of black and white stripped tents crowned with a clock set on a black background with stars. I saw it on an end cap at one of those huge, decadent and impersonal mega bookstores. But I resisted its charm–I did not want to cheat on my favorite local bookstore, so I waited till I got home to purchase it. It was difficult to wait for it because I was completely smitten with it without even picking it up. However, it was worth the wait and I immediately got it when I returned home.

And yes, I am spending that much time describing the cover. But the story itself is so much like the cover, it is worth the time spent. In fact, rarely have I seen artwork on the dust cover that more clearly evoked the story within.

The Night Circus

“Opens at nightfall closes at dawn.” Right away we are aware that this is not an ordinary circus. Within the first few pages it is clear that this is the kind of circus that … well … I always wanted a circus to be. Most importantly, there are no clowns. Clowns are, after all, evil. (Reference: every single episode of Scooby Doo.) This is a magical circus. This is no spoiler here because that is a ready pick up. It is magic disguised as illusion. Real magic disguised as tricks.

And there’s the interesting thing that seems to go back and forth throughout the story. What’s real and what’s not? Now, this is not one of those psychedelic styled stories that reads like Johnny Depp in a film of a Hunter S Thompson book where you cannot tell if something is real or imagined. It’s more like a kaleidoscope story or, perhaps better said, it’s like a story read from the inside of a hall of mirrors. What is real and what is a reflection of real? Is the magic that forms the carousel real or are the mechanics that ground it into believability real?

Our two main characters, Marco and Celia, are competitors in some sort of chess-like game with unknown or unknowable parameters. They compete by feats of magic, but the nature of their competition takes a turn that neither of the men driving the competition may have expected. I liked Celia right away. Did not like Marco, but he grew on me quickly. Their competition and relationship are made manifest in the circus itself. More on this in the Spoilers section below.

The story is also told from different points in time and differing character’s perspectives, each chapter locating itself by a subtitle with date and location. Interspersed are first hand stories of the circus experience which draw you in to the front-of-the-curtain portion of the story. While the time and location changes seem sporadic, perhaps even a bit affected, it is clearly reminiscent of an illusionist’s misdirection and control of the audience’s view during a performance.

The characters, who are numerous and charming, are not all as fully developed as I would have liked. However, that may be largely due to the number of personalities at play. This is not a story about two people. This is a story about an entire company of players, the outsiders that follow them and even the very circus itself. If there is one character that is fully enfleshed it is Le Cirque de Reves. You can smell, taste, feel, walk about her black and white tents and feel the draw of it all and even, if only for a moment, wish she were a real circus to see that amazing clock, to light a candle on the wishing tree, smell a scent from one of the bottles in the tent labeled Anthologies of Memory, to stand by the amazing bonfire encased in the wrought iron caldron or to be drawn to what ever field it appears in without warning with that sense of wonder and mystery and hope that only a childlike belief in possibility can grant.

There was a Joss Wedon feel to the cast, particularly in that persons who might otherwise be disposable were actually quite mysterious and intriguing. Tsukiko is just one of these, a contortionist who remains largely on the fringe for considerable portions and then steps in quite surprisingly like a magician’s assistant stepping out of an unexpected cabinet.

The story had, at least for me, a quite satisfying resolution. An enchanting tale that both revealed and concealed just like an illusionist. I recommend it highly.

************Spoiler Section******************

My thoughts about books are often influenced by whatever else I am reading at the time or just before. Before this, I read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, which was another story of a man and a woman (boy and girl) pitted against each other in a battle to the death that neither of them chose and, somehow, they fall in love and, somehow, they manage to re-write the unavoidable outcome of the game so as to avoid having to kill each other. This is very intriguing to me and I have to wonder what this might say about underlying tensions our culture perceives in romantic relationships. Not a fully formed thought here, just a wonder. It seems that this story vehicle is somewhat new and I wonder about its cultural implications.

An intriguing portion of the relationship between Marco and Celia is that in this competition they begin creating the circus for each other rather than to defeat the other. In a sense, the circus is their child–a creation of their love. It starts as the way they learn about each other, develops into a way of loving each other and ends up being quite literally their reason for existence. The notion of creativity and creating a work of art together that is a manifestation of their love is compelling.

The character of Baily seemed to me almost extra, almost superfluous or an after thought. That is until I completed the story and thought about it for a while. Baily is not particularly special–special enough to recognize the amazing when he sees it and special enough to want his own path in the world, but not specially gifted or talented in any way. He is just like you and me. And even he becomes part of the circus. More than that, he becomes the very crucial piece of the circus and all her players’ continued existence. The circus, the illusions, the magic does not exist without Baily and all the Bailys of the world just like you and me. Unless of course you are an illusionist and I just don’t know it.

I’ve also been reading a philosophy/theology non fiction book called Beauty Will Save The World by Gregory Wolfe. It is striking to me that in The Night Circus there is nothing ugly. There are certainly ugly actions, ugly intentions and dreadfully ugly relationships, but everyone and everything is beautiful. Good and bad alike are beautiful. And this beauty is not sinister, even though sinister things are still beautiful. The blood stain on Celia’s dress after the accidental murder of Frederick Thiessen is beautiful, every last square inch of the circus, the train that bears the circus along, Chandresh’s home, Marco’s apartments, Bailey’s farm and sheep and tree, even Mr A H– and Prospero are beautiful. Perhaps that is the point after all. All are beautiful.

At the end of the story, the man in the grey suit makes a deal with Widget to give over his portion of the circus in exchange for a story. “Someone needs to tell those tales” the man in the grey suit tells him. “…someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There’s magic in that…There are many kinds of magic, after all.”  He talks to Widget about “making the universe more accessible” via magic, but this magic is not something that seems separate from the world but very definitely a part of it. For me, the very best stories are ones that make me, if even for a moment, see things a little differently. Maybe magic is a part of the world. Maybe that child like wonder and mystery and hope are there, too.

There are many kinds of magic, after all.