Book Review — Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Title: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Author: Edward Abbey
Format: Paperback
Published: 1968

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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paxson Woelber. Creative Commons licensed.

A colleague at work was shocked that I’d never heard of Edward Abbey, so she gave me a copy of Desert Solitaire. I read all but the last few pages and wrote most of a draft of this review before I looked him up in Wikipedia and discovered that Desert Solitaire is, “regarded as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature.” So now I feel ignorant, but at least this review is a genuine reaction to the book, not influenced by its reputation.

Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s experiences as a seasonal ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in 1956-1957. “This is the most beautiful place on earth.” That’s the opening sentence of the first chapter, and Abbey spends the rest of the book showing the reader that beauty. His prose is as poetic and vivid as John Muir’s but with more snark and bite. Abbey was a philosopher, an environmental activist, and an anarchist; all three of those identities are on display here. He blends rhapsodic odes to the beauty of Utah’s canyonlands with misanthropic rants about the evils of cities, cars, development, tourists–and especially the Glen Canyon Dam, which was being built during his time at Arches and which he considered an abomination.

Even if you don’t share Abbey’s environmental views, Desert Solitaire is worth reading if you have any interest in the stark, stunning landscape of the Four Corners region (Confession: I live near there, so I’m biased. This region is breathtaking. You need to see it. Start packing.) Whether describing a cattle drive or the Colorado River rushing through narrow red rock canyons, Abbey immerses you in the otherworldly beauty of the canyonlands. He’s also one heck of a storyteller, regaling you with hair-raising tales of him doing extreme (and occasionally really stupid) things like sliding down waterfalls or hiking into The Maze (now part of Canyonlands National Park) with little more than a bottle of water and some trail mix.  My favorite chapter is also the longest: Abbey’s tale of rafting Glen Canyon, which was later flooded after the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. I’ll never see Glen Canyon as he did, because much of it is at the bottom of Lake Powell, but at least I got to see it through his eyes and prose.

I’ll leave you with two passages from the book, which, taken together, will give you a sense of Abbey’s writing style. The first is from near the end of the book, as his time at Arches is coming to a close:

October. Rabbitbrush is in full bloom. The tumbleweeds on the move (that longing to be elsewhere, elsewhere), thousands of them rolling across the plains before the wind. Something like a yellow rash has broken out upon the mountainsides–the aspen forests in their autumn splendor. Sunsets each evening that test a man’s credulity–great gory improvisations in scarlet and gold that remind me of nothing so much as God’s own celestial pizza pies.

Now whenever I look at the aspens on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks in fall, I’ll think of a yellow rash. Thanks, Mr. Abbey.

The second passage is from the end of the introduction:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe. Probably not.

I disagree with Abbey on at least one point: I think you should hop in your car and get out here, and seeing this area from a car is better than not seeing it at all. But if you can’t get here–or you’ve been here and want to relive the experience–pick up a copy of Desert Solitaire and let Abbey be your cranky, crotchety, yet oh-so poetic guide.

Rating: 5/5 for people who enjoy nature writing; 3/5 for everyone else.

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Book Review – Lexicon

TITLE: Lexicon
AUTHOR: Max Barry
FORMAT: Hardback
PUBLISHED: 2013

 

Poets.  No, not the type that string words together into iambic pentameter.  Worse.  These poets understand words and language in ways that laypeople do not.  They can talk to somebody for ten minutes and understand what their segment is and know what words need said to end them entirely.

Wil Parke is a man on the run, and he doesn’t know why.  He’s got total amnesia.  Hell, he isn’t even sure that Wil Parke is his real name.  Oh, and a poet has gone rogue and wants him dead.  So two men kidnap him from the airport and spend much of the book just trying to keep his sorry ass alive.

The book flips between two story lines – one starts with Emily Ruff, who is recruited in California and becomes a poet.  The other story line centers around Wil.  Who is he, how can they keep him alive, and why does somebody want him?

The two stories come together in two places about as different as they can be – Broken Hill, Australia, and Washington, DC.   I know I’m not doing a good job explaining this, but really, I don’t want to give things away too much, and I’m not smart enough anyway. Max Barry was a friggin’ genius with this story.

I loved the background about the poets and that setup, and a lot of the information they were sharing about words is true. So it made the book extra realistic.

That said, I saw how the two stories were going to come together about halfway to when they did.  I didn’t mind, and I still enjoyed the book, but I could see how that might upset some readers a little bit.  Still, I thought the book was strong enough that it didn’t matter.

Max Barry is good about making you care about his characters, so even though you’re expecting xyz, you still want to see how it plays out.

Very happy with this one.  I give it 5/5.

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Idolaters of Cthulhu Edited by H. David Blalock

Title: The Idolaters of Cthulhu

Authors/Creators: H. P. Lovecraft, DJ Tyrer, Amanda Hard, Matthew Wilson, James Victor, Herika R. Raymer, Shenoa Carroll-Bradd, Robert J. Krog, E. dane Anderson, Gregory L. Norris, Michael Krog, H. David Blalock, Jonathan Dubey, Robin Wyatt Dunn, Ben STeward, Tyree Campbell, Harding McFadden, Brian Fatah Steele, Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by H. David Blalock

Format: Trade Paperback, Alban Lake Publishing

Published: 2015

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This…will be an odd review to read, probably. So, with that in mind, read this in its entirety.

This is a book I will never read again.  It left me with intense emotional feelings, even though the intent was simply to tell stories out of a popular mythos, and the feelings it left me with weren’t ones that I’d want to revisit. And that has nothing to do with the fact that this mythos isn’t one I tend to read anyway, at least tales written so true to the mythos as these were.

Having said that, this is a book any fan of genre fiction, horror tales, intense emotional rollercoasters through reading, and particularly ALL Lovecraft fans should read.  At least once.  Guaranteed.

The tentpole of the anthology, created by editor H. David Blalock, is captured in the title. Although a ton of work exists set in the world of Cthulhu, both written by Lovecraft and countless others, very few pieces are written solely from the perspective of those who might worship the giant bipedal squid and the other Ancient Ones in his gruesome pantheon.   Blalock, using both historical pieces by Lovecraft and Smith, as well as utilizing brand new tales from a plethora of authors, puts together a collection that not only takes readers deep into the twisted minds of those who pledge their life and fealty to monstrous gods, but also connects readers to these poor souls.  Several stories in the book will cause readers to see people they know in the doomed lead characters, and scarily enough, even see themselves.

There are several very strong tales in this book and only one or two that I feel could have been better.  The strongest by far for me was Sentry by Herika R. Raymer.  Now, I’ll admit, this is probably because it is the one story in the book that leans more to what I prefer to read, which is a hero attempting to stand against the unstoppable foe.  But there’s more to why this one is the best in the book.  Raymer presents a character who has given his life to his mission and even before the conclusion of the story, the reader understands just how much of a sacrifice, how much loss this individual has experienced.  This tale is very intense on an emotional level and perhaps is the best mirror in the entire collection for readers to look into.

This book is definitely a Five for me on the Book In The Bag scale.  Anytime a written work can elicit a variety of strong responses, from revelation to revulsion, in a reader, then it is something everyone should read. Even if I will only ever read it once.

 

Book Review – Elephants Never Forget! by Anushka Ravishankar

Title: Elephants Never Forget!
Author: 
Anushka Ravishankar
Illustrator: 
Christiane Pieper
Format: 
Hardcover
Written: 
2007
Published: 
2007

A rollicking adventure story takes one little elephant through terrifying thunderstorms and tiger attacks, isolation, and even an existential crisis, as he learns what really shapes his identity. After running away and joining a herd of buffalo, a little elephant finds his place despite his differences. He stays on with the herd, and is appreciated for who he is and what his differences can bring to the group. When he crosses paths with a herd of other elephants, he is torn about where he belongs, and finds himself making a difficult choice. The text bounces, and swirls across the page, full of onomatopoeias and impact words. Beautifully, but starkly illustrated with elaborate woodcut-style prints in black, white, and a medium grey-blue, this book has a lot of cohesive symbolism. Am I this? Or am I that? Could I be something in the middle? The illustration style not only reinforces that concept, it dances and plays around those boundaries.

I love books that give children credit for having complex inner experiences, and this one definitely does that. There is plenty here to interest younger children, like bold images and big words, but I think this book would be best for children just starting school, when social divisions begin to occur, and some children struggle to find their place in a new little society. This book reinforces the idea that your friends, and your experiences with them, help to shape you as a person, but that ultimately, you are the arbiter of who you decide to be. and you don’t have to be who the rest of the world might think you are. Growing up as an Army brat and frequent transplant, I would’ve gotten a lot out of this book’s message during my own childhood.

I would recommend this book for a library trip, and certainly for K-3 classrooms and read-a-louds, but I don’t think it’s a book that kids will pull out for themselves or get the most out of without guidance from adults. For that reason I’m giving it 4/5.

Book Review – Mix It Up by Hervé Tullet

Title: Mix It Up
Author: Hervé Tullet
Illustrator:  Hervé Tullet
Translator: Christopher Franceschelli
Format: Hardcover
Written: 2014
Published: 2014

After a child has learned to identify colors, where do you go next? Making colors! If your goal is to teach the very young about how secondary colors are made, and how to use their imagination to interact with the printed page, you cannot skip this book! Vibrant colors and hands-on prompts not only bring young readers right into the action, the text subtly cues them to imagine what might come next and then to act it out using the very book in their hands. Large splotches of paint merge together when the book is closed, or shaken, or a finger is rubbed across it. This makes for a uniquely immersive experience among literature for very young children. It’s a self-aware book that breaks the fourth wall and asks readers to manipulate and touch it. However, the effects of those touches and manipulations aren’t real, like many board books; they are illustrated. That means readers are jumping back and forth between real and imaginary. As the text guides them through it, they begin to conceptualize.

I read this to a two-and-a-half-year-old and watched as her confusion became conceptualization before my eyes. There is definitely real educational and developmental value in this book. When I picked it up, I thought it would help teach my daughter that yellow and blue make green, and it has, by giving an example of conceptual foundations for imagination. Yellow isn’t a real and tactile thing that she can easily mix with blue in her everyday experiences. Color is always represented by something, even if it is paint. (Or, in this case, illustrations of paint) The poetically graphic method this piece of children’s literature utilizes to convey its information about color theory is very complementary to the process of learning about color theory. It’s elegant, and I admire it. I would recommend this to parents, caretakers, and art teachers everywhere. 5/5

Book Review – Such Small Hands

TITLE: Such Small Hands
AUTHOR: Andres Barba
TRANSLATED: Lisa Dillman
FORMAT: Paperback
PUBLISHED: 2017 (Original Spanish Version – 2008)

 

At the very beginning of this story, there’s a car accident involving seven year old Marina and her parents.  Her father died immediately, her mother later at the hospital, as they tell you several times in the book.  She’s sent to live in an orphanage with a random group of possessions and a doll whose eyes quit opening and closing like they should.

The other girls in the orphanage are unsure of how to act around her, and what ensues from that is a weird dance of small children who want to know each other and yet can’t bring themselves to say what they mean (or perhaps lack the ability to do so).

 

There’s something about Spanish fiction.  It’s like this beautiful string of poetry that dances in on a gentle breeze, twirls around you a few times, and then leaves you breathless.  Unlike American fiction, there’s no fucking blue chair to understand (ie, no heavy descriptions to bog you down), you get a strand of blonde hair here or a white scar there, never before you need to know about them, and never again after their usefulness is done.  Because it’s not about the overly described thing in the corner that doesn’t even matter, it’s about the moment and about you being a part of it.

The skin around the scar contracted in a fleeting spasm and the girl opened her mouth as if she wanted to devour everything: the air, Marina’s arrogance, her own fear.

This book is in three parts.  Part one is the accident and getting Marina to the orphanage, all Marina’s point of view.  Two and three switch between the other girls, who are seen as a descriptioneless collective.  Parts of a whole that we never talk about individually because they aren’t ‘the other girls’ if we do.  In fact, their names are mentioned individually and then as one collective long name with no spaces.  To Marina they are one, so to us they will be too.  Part 2 is about Marina and the other girls seeing each other and keeping their distance.  Part 3 is about the contact between them.

I want to talk more about part 3.  About how something so sad and so helpless can be made so beautiful.  But I also don’t want to give away what happens.

The book was terribly sad, but in a beautiful wrapper in such a way that I hungered for more.  I felt like the girls, who just wanted to reach out a finger but were afraid of interrupting the magic if they did.  I wanted to know more about so many things, but I knew as soon as I did, it would have the subtlety of a pencil to the butt and that wasn’t at all what I wanted.

It’s only a novella, or maybe even a novelette (My very basic word count estimate is 20k, so novella, but it’s definitely not an accuracy level I’d swear by) which actually enhances the story.  This could be a novel, but you wouldn’t want it to be… it needs to be the single movement and not the whole symphonic performance for the night.  So I give it a very high 4/5 – read the book, somewhere quiet with no distractions, and let it be your own music.  But I don’t think you’ll need to read it more than once, because I think this one will haunt you for a long time to come.

 

 

Book Review – Tender Wings of Desire

TITLE: Tender Wings of Desire
AUTHOR: KFC (YUM Brands claims the copyright)
PUBLISHED: 2017
FORMAT: E-Book

“For mothers everywhere, I dedicate this to you – a brief escape from motherhood into the arms of your fantasy Colonel, whoever he may be.”

Lady Madeline Parker doesn’t want to marry the man who her parents have given her hand to, so she runs away the night before her wedding and finds work in a tavern, and finds love in the arms of a sailor (also running from his responsibilities) named Harland Sanders.

No, this is not a joke. For Mother’s Day, KFC put out a romance novel, complete with redhead in jeans, accessorized by a purse and a chicken drumstick, in the arms of a rather buff and sleeveless Colonel Harland Sanders, the founder of KFC. As the e-book was free*, I picked it up, and figured it would be a light read where I would giggle at the tropes I often encounter in romance novels. Oh no.

Whoever wrote this did no research into whatever era they placed this in, given the mistakes they made in forms of address for peers, most of which can be found with a quick internet search, or a character calling another a “dish”, as well as a lot of little things that just read like nails on a chalkboard to me. The plot was trite and, really, nothing was done to make us really care about Madeline, or, dare I say it, Harland. While there may be eleven herbs and spices in the Colonel’s secret recipe, they were all lacking from this book and these characters.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with this book – Colonel Harland Sanders. KFC/YUM Brands stuck a disclaimer in the beginning that “characters are fictitious or used in a fictitious manner.” But this is nothing more than someone at (or hired by) KFC writing real person romantic fan fiction about the founder of the restaurant. Frankly, the real Colonel Sanders, and yes, he was a real, actual person, deserves better than to be reduced to this, a bland caricature of a man running away from his responsibilities to his restaurant empire. While the real Colonel Harland Sanders’ rank was more honorary as a member of the Kentucky Colonels (an honor he shares with persons such as Muhammad Ali, John Glenn, several former U.S. Presidents, and Betty White), he was an actual human being, not just an actor in a white wig, and reading about his romancing this fictional woman just put me off this book entirely. I kept reading in the hope it would get better, and sadly, it never did.

I have to give it 1 out of 5 pages.

*As of today, it’s now $0.99 on Amazon for the e-book, unless you have Kindle Unlimited.

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