Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. Penguin Random House, 2015.
Reason read: two reasons really. One, because I needed a book for the Portland Public Library Reading Challenge in the category of “A book published in the last ten years [I] think will be a classic.” Two, because my sister sent this in the mail. If you know the book then you know it is over 800 pages. I can’t believe she mailed it to me. I (selfishly) would have waited until she was in town if the roles were reversed.
To be one hundred percent honest, A Little Life disturbed me though and through. While on the surface the story follows the lives of four college friends, they all have serious issues that border on all-out tragedy. Living in New York and trying to make a go of different careers, it is terrifying to watch their weaknesses chew them up and spit them out one by one. At the same time, there is something unnervingly beautiful about their friendships despite vastly different upbringings. At the center is Jude. Beautifully broken Jude. At times I wanted to hurl his story out the window in seething frustration. He doesn’t want to talk about his life. He is a mystery. He can’t talk about his parents of ethnic background for fear of betrayal. He can’t navigate stairs and needs an elevator. He cuts himself to the point of suicidal. He’s not white and doesn’t mention his childhood. He’s always in pain, wearing leg braces or using a wheelchair. His injury is not from an accident but something deliberate. He is a glutton for punishment beyond human sanity. He went to same law school as his friend Malcolm’s dad. He is the most beautiful of the group; and the most sly. He doesn’t like to be touched. Yet, he is a loyal-to-the-core friend. Like a many-layered onion, the reader peels back the mystery that is Jude. When you get to his core you’ll wish you hadn’t. The abuses he suffers are so numerous and varied; each one more horrifying than the next that you have to ask yourself, how much trauma can one soul take?
Jude’s loyal and loving friends:
Willem: He is always hungry. He is good looking but not as beautiful as Jude. He is from Wyoming and both of his parents are dead. He’s not a big drinker or drug user. He works in a restaurant and his brother, Hemming, is disabled. He’s also an actor who, in the beginning, gets mediocre parts. His fame is a source of wonderment.
J.B (Jean-Baptiste): Like Willem, he is always hungry. He lives in a loft in Little Italy and works as a receptionist. He fancies himself an artist that works with hair from a plastic bag. His mother pampers him ever since his father died. Internally, he competes with his peers. He is sleeping with Ezra and has an artist studio in Long Island City. He is the proverbial “I don’t have a drug problem” denying man. He can’t give up his college days. They all can’t.
Malcolm: He never finishes his Chinese takeout, but he always orders the same thing. He lives with his parents and has a sister named Flora. He is taking a class at Harvard.
Digging into the meaning of friendship there was one concept that had me rattled. The potential for friends to outgrow one another. I have experienced it and Dermot Kennedy wrote a whole song about it, but I don’t think anyone has written about it so eloquently as Yanagihara.
Here is another confessional: this took me ages and ages and ages to read. There is a lot going on with many, many characters. Like extras in a movie, these people don’t amount to much, but at the time they were introduced I couldn’t be sure. I wanted to commit every single one to memory, but the parade of people was dizzying: Andy, Annika, Adele, Ana, Avi, Alex, Ali, Charlie, Carolina, Caleb, Clement, Clara, Dean, David, Dominick, Ezra, Emma, Fina, Findlay, Gabriel, Gillian, Harold, Hera, Henry, Isidore, Jansz, Jason, Jackson, Joseph, Jacob, Julia, Kerrigan, Lawrence, Luke, Lionel, Liesl, Lucien, Laurence, Merrit, Massimo, Marisol, Meredith, Nathan, Oliver, Peter, Phaedra, Pavel, Robin, Richard, Roman, Rhodes, Sally, Sonal, Sullivan, Sophie, Topher, Thomas, Treman, Zane. I could go on and on.
Quote to quote, “He could feel the creature inside of him sit up, aware of the danger but unable to escape it” (p 138).
Playlist: Haydn Sonata No. 50 in D Major.
Author fact: Yanagihara graduated from Smith College. Too cool.
Book trivia: Little Life is Yanagihara’s second book.
Believe it or not, I’m kind of happy with the way January is shaping up already, five days in. After the disappointments of December I am definitely ready for change. I’m running more these days. I convinced a friend to see sirsy with me. I’m not sure what she thought, but I am still in love with the lyrics. Anyway, enough of that. Here are the books:
- The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett – in honor of Bennett’s birthday being on the 14th of January. (EB)
- Sanctuary by Ken Bruen – in honor of Bruen’s birthday also being in January. Confessional: I read this book in one day. (EB)
- The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat – in honor of Danticat’s birthday also being in January. (EB)
- Graced Land by Laura Kalapakian – in honor of Elvis’s birth month also being in January.
- Passage to India by E.M. Forster – in honor of Forster’s birth month also being in January. Yes, celebrating a lot of birthdays this month!
- Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba by Tom Gjelten – in honor of a Cuban Read Day held in January.
- Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel – in honor of China’s spring festival.
- Persuader by Lee Child – the last one in the series, read in honor of New York becoming a state in July (and where Child lived at the time I made this whole thing up). (AB)
- The Master of Hestviken: the Son Avenger by Sigrid Undset – this is another series I am wrapping up. I started it in October in honor of a pen pal I used to know in Norway.
- I am supposed to receive an Early Review from November’s list, but it hasn’t arrived so I can’t mention it. For the first time in a long, long time (perhaps ever, I’ll have to look), I did not request a book for the month of December.
If I was California dreaming in July, then I will be Alaska cruising in August. Since there were a few books on the July list I didn’t finish I am punishing myself by not starting my August list until the July list is completely cleared. This is a first and totally off the Challenge protocol. Here’s how the reading should go:
- Henry James: the Middle Years by Leon Edel (280 pages to go)
- Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (300 pages to go)
When those are finished I can tackle the AUGUST READS:
- Possession by A.S. Byatt ~ in honor of Byatt’s birth month
- Miami by Joan Didion ~ in honor of Castro’s birth month
- Henry James:
the Masterthe Treacherous Years by Leon Edel (will this series ever end? Apparently, I am eager for it to be over since I skipped a volume!)
- Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie
Himes, Chester. The Real Cool Killers. Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1950s. New York: Library of America, 1999.
Ulysses Galen is shot dead for no apparent reason. Detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones need to figure out how a supposedly important white man wound up dead in Harlem. This story was a jumbled mess of contradictions. While there is over the top violence the cops are bumbling and almost slapstick. Coffin is suspended for killing a boy after being “perfumed.” He thought the boy was throwing acid in his face and overreacted. Digger’s main suspect in the shooting is a man they managed to handcuff before he was rescued by a gang of teenagers dressed as Arabs. You would think the police would watch for someone wearing cuffs when they search the neighborhood but they don’t think of it when they interview a man wearing huge gloves and a heavy overcoat. It gets even funnier when they don’t notice a man tied up in a sack in plain sight. They question it but accept its a bag of coal on a bed. As for the story itself, I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. No one is really as they seem.
The names in this story are pretty funny: Inky, Choo-Choo, Sheik, Camel Mouth and Bones are all members of the Real Cool Muslim gang.
Disclaimer – this story is loaded with violence. In the very first chapter a knife yielding man gets his arm chopped off and two people are shot dead. At one point two detectives are rolling around, wrestling & arguing. Their scuffle takes place over the body of one of the dead men. It seems almost slapstick.
Line I liked, “I marked this one down as D.O.E. That means dead on arrival – my arrival, not his” (p 763). A medical examiner with a sense of humor.
Reason read: October is National Crime Prevention month.
Author fact: Chester Grimes was familiar with crime. He was arrested twice for armed robbery when he was 19. Convicted of the crimes he was spent eight years in prison (paroled in 1936).
Book trivia: Real Cool Killers is part of a series featuring Detectives Gravedigger and Coffin.
BookLust Twist: The Real Cool Killers is in a True Crime compilation I am reading for the challenge. From Book Lust in the chapter called “Les Crimes Noir” (p 65).
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigee Books, 1954.
What high school English lit teacher hasn’t put Lord of the Flies on his or her syllabi? What student hasn’t read at least one excerpt from this book? I shudder to think classrooms have moved to the movie version, but if that means Golding’s story lives on, so be it.
This could be called the most chilling sociological experiment of all times (besides Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game.) What happens when you take the most prim and organized society (proper English boys from a prep school), hand it the suggestion of chaos and violence (they are escaping a nuclear war), then leave it to its own devices without guidance (a deserted island without adults)? All normalcy goes out the window when the boys try to build their own hierarchical, structured society. In a Darwinian approach some boys, the strongest & smartest, rise to the top while weaker boys become scapegoats and victims of paranoia. In the beginning the group is held together by necessity. They recognize the need for fairness and organization, especially if they want to be rescued. But all that vanishes when the younger boys become increasingly convinced there is a monster on the island. No amount of rationalizing can calm them. Fear and violence escalates until there is no turning back. All calm is lost to tragedy.
Probably the most frustrating part about the book was something very deliberate on Golding’s part. When the boys are finally rescued the Naval officer is embarrassed by the children, especially Ralph’s emotional breakdown when remembering how it all fell apart. You want the officer, the adult, to be more understanding, to take the boys more seriously.
Book Trivia: Lord of the Flies influenced musicians like U2 and Iron Maiden and sparked television parodies but a full length movie has yet to be made.
Author Fact: Golding won a Nobel Prize for literature.
Favorite line: “The group of boys looked at the conch with affectionate respect” (p 128).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called “100 Good Reads: Decade by Decade (1950s),” (p 177).
Barry, Lynda. Cruddy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
From the very first pages you want to know what this Cruddy book is all about. First, you are introduced to sixteen year old Roberta Rohbeson via her bizarre suicide note. Then, hoping to shed some light on the situation, you read chapter one which is only seven sentences long which says nothing about anything. Then you encounter chapter two and read the word “Cruddy” nineteen times in the first paragraph. Funky, funky, funky was all I could say. I was not prepared for what happened next. Little did I know I would end up saying sick, sick, sick by the end of the book.
Cruddy is told from the perspective of Roberta Rohbeson at two different times in her life; as an eleven year old troubled little girl and as a sixteen year old angry teenager. Her story is tough and tragic and tinged with terrible humor. As an eleven year old she is thrust into the raging, alcohol-blurred world of her father who refuses to see her as his daughter. Instead, Roberta is not only his son, called Clyde, but his accomplice. When he discovers her in the backseat of his getaway car he takes her on a murderous journey across the desert fueled by hatred for his suicide-dead father who left him nothing.
As a sixteen year old Roberta is strung out on drugs and driven by abandonment. She befriends a group of outcast suicidal drug dealers who do nothing but fuel her craziness. One boy in particular, Turtle, gets Roberta to tell her sad tale.
This was a book I found myself wondering about long after I put it down. Was Roberta modeled after anyone Lynda knew? Where did she come up with such a violent, messed up plot? What was the acceptable age range for this book? Would parents cringe if they knew their kid was reading this under the covers late at night?
Lines that got me: Roberta’s father’s motto: “Expect the Unexpected and whenever possible BE the Unexpected!” (p 142), “He was explaining how perfect it would be because he could kill me right in the concrete ditch itself and when the water came it would gush me and all the evidence away” (p 163), and my personal favorite, “There is a certain spreading blankness that covers the mind after you kill someone” (p 273).
Author Fact: Lynda Barry was born on January 2nd, 1956 and is a cartoonist (among many other things).
Book Trivia: This was called a novel in illustration but only the start of each chapter has an illustration (creepy illustration).
BookLust Twist: From Book Lustand More Book Lust . From Book Lust in the chapter called “Graphic Novels” (p 104), even though Cruddy isn’t a graphic novel. Also in More Book Lust in the chapter called “Teenage Times” (p 217). What Pearl should have called the category for this book was “Fukced up Teenage Times.”
Book Lust trivia – Lynda Barry and Cruddy were not mentioned in the index to Book Lust. In fact, only One! Hundred! Demons! made it into Book Lust’s index.
Kadrey, Richard. Sandman Slim. New York: Harper Collins, 2009
This book was brought to me by the Early Review program at LibraryThing. This is my 27th? book. I think. Sometimes writing these reviews scares the crap out of me. What if I have no clue what I’m talking about? What I love a book although I don’t understand it? Such is the case with Sandman Slim.I honestly do not know how to describe this book. Horror? Fantasy? Supernatural? Funny as all hell (pun totally intended)? Kadrey has the sarcasm and biting wit that keeps Sandman Slim down to Earth, yet the violence and creatures main character James Stark encounter is nothing short of unearthly. Stark is back from Hell (literally), although he calls it Downtown. He prowls his way through LosAngeles witha score to settle with the magic circle – particularly one Mason Faim – responsible for killing his girlfriend, Alice. James has ammunition, a fortune-telling coin (reminiscent of the Joker in the latest Batman flick), a black bone knife, an infernal key that unlocks more than just a simple door and a 200 year old friend named Vidocq. Sandman Slim is full of interesting characters and Kadrey takes full advantage of bringing them to life even when they should be dead (James himself walks around withtwo bullets rattling around in his ribcage). My favorite scenes are the flashbacks with Alice. The entire time I was reading Sandman Slim I kept thinking it would make a great movie. I would cast Anthony Bourdain as the lead.
Another thing I wanted to add is that this copy looks and feels good. I don’t know about you, but I love when a good just feels good in my hands.
Line I hope is kept: “She goes into the kitchen, rattles some drawers, and comes back with a hefty kitchen knife. Nice. She’s getting into the spirit of things” (132). This is a scene when James is trying to convince someone she can’t hurt him. Literally. Love it.
Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Wyoming Stories. New York: Scribner, 1999.
I am fascinated by Wyoming. Have been ever since I was a teenager. I think it started when a boyfriend of mine enthralled me with stories of Coffin Lake. It sounded so beautiful and wild and so far away. Close Range is a collection of short stories that take place in Wyoming. Here is a list of the short stories:
- “The Half Skinned Steer” ~ a creepy story about an over-eighty year old man who travels from New England to Wyoming by car for his brother’s funeral. It’s an odd story because he and his brother weren’t close. Favorite line, “He wanted caffeine. The roots of his mind felt withered and punky” (p 29) and “He traveled against curdled sky” (p 34).
- “The Mud Below” ~ a desperate tale about a man obsessed with bull riding because it’s all he knows how to do.
- “Job History” ~ Literally, a fast-forward version of the job history of Lee Leland.
- “The Blood Bay” ~ okay, I admit it. I don’t know how to describe this story. Just read it for yourself!
- “People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water”
- “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World” ~ Girl talks to a tractor.
- “Pair a Spurs” ~ favorite line, “I get the rough end a the pineapple every day” (p 153).
- “A Lonely Coast”
- “The Governors of Wyoming”
- “55 Miles to the Gas Pump”
- “Brokeback Mountain” ~ I think everyone knows this story, thanks to the movie.
Confessional: I read Close Range at the same time as Stillmeadow Road by Gladys Taber. Bad idea. Not because one made the other worse. It was just that they were too completely different books and the contrast made it difficult for me to concentrate.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories sets a very harsh, violent, sad landscape for its characters. Poverty and a sense of futility is in every story. Every situation is a lesson in survival and dealing with the crappy hand you have been dealt. Words like stark and bleak and depressed come to mind. The characters are born into a way of life that has barely any opportunity for change. There is no easy means of escape. The brutality of the landscape is matched only by the grit of its inhabitants.
BookLust Twist: From Book Lust in the chapter called, “Companion Reads” (p 64).