Friday, September 27, 2013


By Steve Martin

I need to pay more attention. I've been dismissing Shopgirl for over a decade because I, apparently, don't listen.

Somehow, I managed to confuse this little gem of a novel with the series of Shopaholic novels written by Sophie Kinsella, despite the fact that several people have repeatedly told me that it has nothing to do with the Shopaholic series. But, like I said, I don't listen. and since there is virtually zero chance of my ever picking up a Shopaholic novel (with no offense intended to either the Shopaholic series or Sophie Kinsella), this book almost passed me by due to my stubborn insistence that this book was going to be about shopping. Thank god my mother finally got it through my thick skull that Shopgirl was written by Steve Martin, untethering the book from Kinsella in my mind and placing it high on my list of novels to read. I love Steve Martin. I love his stand-up. I love his work on television. I love his films. I love his Twitter feed and I love that he can play the banjo. It would make sense that I would love his books as well. If you, like me, have dismissed this novel because you think it's going to be about shopping or something akin to consumption of items from a department store and/or a boutique on Rodeo Drive, I'm here to rest your worried mind. It's not about any of that.

Shopgirl is a bleak little love story told from the perspective of four individuals in the Los Angeles area as some point prior to the cell phone era (the novel was published in 2000). It centers around the doomed-from-the-beginning relationship between Ray, a wealthy, middle-aged man, and Mirabelle, a twenty something artist currently working the glove counter at an expensive LA department store (thus the name, Shopgirl). Jeremy, a going-nowhere slacker and Lisa, a ferocious sexual predator fill out the novel's dance card. The dating triangle of four is complete.

Martin is not exploring new territory. The modern dating scene has been raked throughout with a fine-toothed comb since the term "modern dating" came into existence. Much of the action is predictable and the outcomes are plain even to the most oblivious daters out there (read: me). Expect no Roald Dahl-esque twists in Shopgirl because they are not forthcoming. But, that's the nature of "modern dating in the pre-cell phone era," isn't it? There are no surprise endings. Only the same predictable results, relationship after relationship until we all die lonely and miserable in a house full of cats and tins of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. It all seems so pointless.

Well, I did say it was a bleak story.

But there is a lot of charm and wit packed into this 130-page story to make it worth reading despite the fact that you know exactly how it's all going to turn out by page 25. Steve Martin has an observational tone that implies that he has lived this sort of life long enough to understand the exact physical, intellectual, emotional and psychological machinations, but not quite long enough to understand why we delude ourselves into pretending to not see those same machinations in our own relationships. This makes me like Steve Martin all the more because it's a war zone out there, kids.

Or something like that.

In Shopgirl, Martin explores the various manifestations of loneliness in an urban landscape where we are both surrounded by a millions of people and, at the same time, completely alone. Sort of like Facebook except with actual faces that move and talk and react to what you say immediately via speech rather than comments and pokes. Martin writes with a sincerity that is both comedic (expected) and tragic (surprising). Many of the observations within the novel are the sorts that we have all vaguely noticed but probably have never spent the time to collect up into a formal observation. Once Martin expresses them in words we find ourselves nodding in sad affirmation that he has nailed it on the head. Each of Martin's four principal characters have found ways in which to live with their loneliness, whether it is anti-depressants, psychological walls or dependence of self-help literature. It is fitting that one of the central characters in the novel, Lisa, works at the cosmetics counter. Her brand of loneliness is so completely covered over by vapidity and materialism that Lisa isn't even aware that she has set the controls of her life on a trajectory to disaster.

But the real strength of Shopgirl is setting. As with many of his better films, Martin brings a unique understanding of Los Angeles (or at least I think he has a unique understanding. I've never been to LA and most of what I believe about LA has been gleaned from Steve Martin Movies and The Big Lebowski). Much the same way Stephen King has the ability to capture the essence of Maine, Steve Martin has a keen sense of the particular eccentricities that make Los Angeles different and employs these eccentricities in a manner that accentuates rather than smothers the narrative. When Martin describes the various patrons entering and exiting a medical clinic while waiting for Mirabelle to fill a prescription for anti-depressants, he is expressing just enough of LAs unique qualities without over-burdening the reader with an editorial rant. It is plainly obvious that Martin loves Los Angeles and it permeates the novel, making it better as a result.

The literary style is simple. Martin employs simple, flat sentences in the present tense to convey complex social and sexual politics with the keen eye of a seasoned social scientist. However, the narrative remains stolidly detached and non-judgmental. In fact, Martin manages to evoke empathy for all his characters by focusing on the universal complexities of human relationships. I found it easy to relate to both Ray and Mirabelle despite the fact that their lives have virtually nothing in common with my own.

This is an exquisite little novel.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Switch Bitch

Switch Bitch
By Roald Dahl

Keeping it short today...

And for anyone who, like me, was unaware... Yes, that Roald Dahl.

This might come as a shock, but I had no idea that Roald Dahl, the writer of some of my favorite children's novels including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Fantastic Mr. Fox and The BFG, was also a prolific writer of short fiction for adults as well. I kew that Shel Silverstein wrote a lot of adult content, but not Dahl. So I approached Switch Bitch, a collection of four short stories for adults, with equal parts trepidation and eager anticipation. Was my childhood to be ruined or would I be opened up to an entirely new side of a writer I have always enjoyed?

Turns out, neither. If you have never read Roald Dahl's adult fiction he provides wonderfully fantastical premises and gorgeous twist endings to his admittedly addictive stories. I simply dare a reader to settle into one of these stories and then try and put it down for the evening. It won't happen. In that respect, Switch Bitch, like Dahl's children's literature is virtually impossible to ignore and a delightful romp from start to finish.

But I also found the stories lacking a certain quality. My fundamental problem with Switch Bitch (and this is my problem with so many works ofd fantasy and science fiction) is that he could have taken his premises so much further. I yearn for the extremes. I was literally begging the pages to take his ideas farther afield than Dahl seemed prepared to go. In the story "Bitch" the possibilities of a perfume that renders the human male into a helplessly unstoppable sexual beast are tantalizing, but Dahl reins the story in just as I was prepared to go all the way. And in "The Great Switcheroo" I was prepared for a bigger twist than what was eventually revealed I thought. Dahl owed it to his readers to take that premise to the ends of the earth. Alas, he did not, or at least not as far as this reader would have liked. I sincerely hope this is because Dahl was showing a modicum of literary restraint and not because I have become so wholly depraved that I am wishing sexual cataclysm on unsuspecting literary characters. Of course, on the list of things I'd rather no be known for "More Deviant than Roald Dahl" falls pretty low on the list.

Is it worth a read? Of course. It's an interesting insight into the mind of one of the 20th century's greatest writers. Just don't expect the unexpected (as the cover implores). There's nothing particularly new on these pages. But if you like Roald Dahl you owe it to yourself to check this one out. Don't worry. Your virgin eyes will absorb the impact. Dahl may have hit his fair share of literary home runs, but Switch Bitch is second base is so many more ways than one. Of course, Dahl's second base is still pretty sweet.

Monday, September 23, 2013


By Elmore Leonard


I am in the middle of my own personal reading challenge. I didn't mention this in the previous blogpost because I was too busy getting pseudo-academic on the subject of Ernest Hemingway (I insist on using the "pseudo" prefix because A) I drink rather heavily while writing and B) even if I weren't, I rarely know what I'm talking about). It wasn't planned. It's not particularly organized and I didn't invite other bloggers to participate, though you are more than welcome to hop aboard if you wish.

From now until Christmas I plan on reading as many novels by notable authors that I have previously never read. The first in this challenge was Ernest Hemingway, an author I have somehow managed to avoid for 38 years prior to last week. Other authors officially queued up for a peek this season are Iris Murdoch, Truman Capote and Raymond Chandler. But this week I finally tackled an author I've been dying to read for a few decades: Elmore Leonard.

As I am sure I have mentioned on more than one occasion on this blog, one of my favorite sites on the web is The Onion's AV Club. For anyone who takes popular culture seriously, it is an invaluable resource for books, film, music and games, both old and new. One of my favorite columns on the AV Club is something called Gateway to Geekery, which provides step-by-step tutorials for Johnny-Come-Latelys who would like to get into the work of prolific artists. For example, perhaps you are interested in exploring Lou Reed's discography but you feel hopelessly intimidated by the sheer volume of material. Where do you start? Gateway to Geekery is there to help lest you make the mistake of picking up a copy of Metal Machine Music.

Anyway, I wish there was a Gateway to Geekery article available to anyone late to the Elmore Leonard Party because I'm pretty sure they would have advised me against reading Killshot.

Killshot is mid-career novel by Elmore Leonard. Written in 1989, it is the story of Wayne Colson and his wife, Carmen who inadvertently get caught in the middle of the shakedown of Carmen's boss. After a brief physical altercation, Wayne sends Armand Degas, an Ojibway hit man, and Richie Nix, a dim-witted loose cannon away, with their tails between their legs. Degas is a professional and knows that both Wayne and Carmen have seen their faces and could positively identify them in a police line-up. He is determined to do away with Wayne and Carmen as a measure of job security and maintained anonymity. As with any novel of this sort, the police are ineffectual. Wayne and Carmen are natually forced to take matters into their own hands.

I was expecting a fast-paced novel with lots of slick-talking characters and what I got was a slow plot that seemed unsure of where to go next. It felt as if Leonard was throwing in all sorts of half-concocted ideas and ill-formed plot lines only to abandon them before they fully materialized. While the characters are indeed strong, I found it impossible to believe that a professional such as Armand Degas would have partnered up with someone as dull-witted as Richie Nix. Degas must have known upon meeting this half-wit that doing any sort of business with him was going to end in disaster and it's not like they were forced to work together. Furthermore, Degas could have dissolved their partnership at any time. So why does he let such an unstable partner continue to live despite his erratic behavior? Degas's motivations remained concealed throughout and that weakened the novel considerably.

Furthermore, the legendary dialog that I expected from Leonard never really materialized. The dialog was by no means awful, but given what I had heard about his ability to write a conversation, I was decidedly underwhelmed. It is possible that it was built up too much prior to reading, but I found that the dialog in Killshot is a far cry from the brilliant work of Richard Price. Perhaps I picked the wrong book.

One area in which this book excels is Leonard's exploration of the theme of security. Leonard takes aim at the myth that we can insulate ourselves from crime and violence via various methods of self defense (in this case firearms and police protection but it could extend to more contemporary methods such as video surveillance, home security firms etc...). The fact of the matter is that security is a complete myth. The amount of time, money and effort we put into security does not directly translate into a more secured existence. In fact, it is impossible to protect ourselves from anything or anyone if that thing or person is determined to get you. Leonard did a fine job of expressing this from both the perspective of the terrorized Colson couple trying to protect themselves from would-be killers and Armand Degas, a professional killer trying to protect his anonymity.

Unfortunately the themes of the novel are not enough to carry the slow, meandering plot. Killshot had the makings of a decent novel but too many weird directions and loose ends makes it feel like an unfinished idea rather than a fully actualized novel. Given Elmore Leonard's reputation and his sheer volume of work, I will definitely give him another chance (though I am going to solicit recommendations before I jump into another title).

Monday, September 16, 2013

For Whom the Bell Tolls

For Whom the Bell Tolls
By Ernest Hemingway

I am doing this review as part of of Banned Book Week. I am participating in a blog tour hosted by Sheila over at Book Journey. This is my second year participating in this event. I feel privileged to be invited back. When I got the email invite last week it just so happened that I was in the middle of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, a book I had never previously read and, it just so happens, to be number 30 on the American Library Association's list of Most Banned Books in America. Serendipity, indeed.

I can't believe I have to do this but For Whom the Bell Tolls follows about a week in the life of Robert Jordan, an American fighting on the side of the Republic during the Spanish Civil War. Jordan is charged with blowing up a strategic bridge in advance of a Republic offensive. In the course of the week leading up to the explosion, Jordan meets Maria, a young Spanish woman who was the victim of a brutal gang rape at the hands of the Fascists. As time passes and a lot of Hamlet-esque drama unfolds, Jordan begins to rethink his commitment to the war and his mission.

Published in 1929, For Whom the Bell Tolls was Hemingway's literary confessional about the Spanish Civil War, a conflict he covered as a writer. I'm of the opinion that if it weren't for Hemingway and the enduring legacy of his literature, the Spanish Civil War, which was Europe's dry run prior to the Second World War, would be largely forgotten today. So in that way one might liken For Whom the Bell Tolls to M*A*S*H, which has kept the Korean War from becoming a historical footnote. And if it weren't for Banned Book Week, this was where my blog post was going to go. I'll have to find another book in which to compare to M*A*S*H.

So let's get to the $50,000 question. Why was For Whom the Bell Tolls book banned?

I use the past tense here because it is not a book that gets a lot of attention from Book Banners these days. Indeed, there are no For Whom the Bell Tolls is the sort of innocuous novel about the graphic brutality of war set during on the last century's most obscure conflicts. But graphic depictions of wartime atrocities were not a new concept. A slew of novels about World War I including classics such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's own A Farewell to Arms had sufficiently shocked a generation of readers with their grotesque accounts of death and disease during history's most pointless war. But back in the 1940s and especially the 1950s For Whom the Bell Tolls was a novel of quite a bit of discussion not for it's graphic accounts of rape, torture and murder but because of its pro-Communist slant (Of course, it was also banned in Spain under the rule of Franco and, interestingly enough, in Nazi Germany where it was burned in bonfires prior to the Second World War).

So let's make this clear. For Whom the Bell Tolls was banned because it was perceived as pro-communist. What a dated reason to ban a book. If there are people who supported this ban who are still alive today, I have to assume they are pretty damned quiet about it. It would be hard to convince anyone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 2013. Hell, it would be hard to convince someone that this is a viable reason to ban a book in 1983.

Allow me to explain...

As the years progress and the Baby Boomers fade into cultural obscurity it will be increasingly difficult for us as members of the modern Western World to fully comprehend the fear, the sheer terror that Communism evoked in the American psyche in the years immediately after World War II. Obviously there are millions of people who still remember the Cold War (myself included) and the fear that it was capable of invoking but as it slips ever farther from our public discourse it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile the blood-curdling frenzy of McCarthy era America and its obsession with eliminating all remnants of communism from its social, political and cultural landscape. Censorship and suppression of seditious literature was a big thing in during the early days of the Cold War.

Unfortunately for Ernest Hemingway, his novels about the Spanish Civil War, and particularly For Whom the Bell Tolls, fell squarely in the crosshairs of America's suppression set. It was guilty of several political crimes that seemed to be of the utmost importance at the time. For Whom the Bell Tolls first unthinkable mistake was to give the reader an accurate depiction of the Spanish Civil War in which the Republican forces, which consisted in large part of communists and communist-sympathizers from around the world, fought valiantly against the (eventually victorious) Fascists. It would have been difficult for Hemingway to write a well-reasoned novel about the Spanish conflict without making it clear that the Republicans were littered with communists, some of which were American.

Which brings me to strike two. Robert Jordan is an American citizen that seems to be at the very least sympathetic to the communist plight in Spain. This was never going to sit well in the parlors and cocktail parties frequented by the McCarthites of the 1950s. Just like homosexuals in Iran, communists didn't exist in post-war America, and if they did, they would be silenced. Hemingway was one of the victims of that suppression. The nail in the proverbial coffin was the inclusion of one particular sentence: Hold out and fortify, and you will win. This was a verbatim Communist Party slogan and therefore seen as proof positive that Hemingway was perpetuating the Communist menace in America. It got so bad that in 1941 the U.S. Post Office refused to mail the novel due to it's perceived Communist sympathies.

It all looks rather silly to a reader of this blog in 2013. A novel being banned because it perhaps, maybe favored one political ideal over another seems rather heavy-handed. In fact, as I read this novel I noted that it was wonderful that we now live in an age in which one's politics will not land one in hot water, least of which a writer. That is until I thought a little harder. We like to assume that political freedom is a hallmark of our post Cold War world. But when we take a closer look, such heavy-handed tactics are still very much in play, though not so much on the literary front. Consider the cases of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. None of them are writers but their particular situations are at least akin to those of Ernest Hemingway's from over a half century ago. By adhering to a political ideal that falls outside the accepted social parameters (ironically, Communism is well within those parameters now, precisely because it has been rendered marginal) they have been demonized, harassed and muzzled.

But I digress. This is not a political blog and I have no intention of making it so.

I do, however, think there is a cautionary tale to be told here. When looking back on the rationale for the banning of For Whom the Bell Tolls we can collectively roll our eyes at the absurdity of the reasoning.As I mentioned earlier, it all seems so silly. So what of today? what of the slew of books banned for excessive violence and/or sex or novels that portray particular religious groups in a negative light? what will we say about these bans twenty, thirty or fifty years from now? Will we look back on the furor over these novels and say to ourselves: "Yeah, we were fighting the good fight and those decisions were right decisions." or will we look back and say: "What the hell were we thinking? That was much ado about nothing."

Given the fact that it has been decades since For Whom the Bell Tolls has provoked the ire of American cultural police, I'm going to assume the latter.

In conclusion, there is never, ever, ever, ever an acceptable reason to ban a book.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


By Joan Frances Turner

Faithful readers of this blog will know that I am a sucker for all things zombie. I've been a fan of zombie lore since I was in junior high school and it has been a pet obsession for the past three decades with no apparent end in site. I don't profess to be an expert on the subject, but I can talk knowledgeably and one thing I love to talk about is what's wrong with the zombie sub-genre. Over the years, I have developed a singular pet peeve in relation to my obsession: that of the endgame in the zombie story arc. It's a dead end (pun intended). Once a writer goes all in with a zombie apocalypse, it is danced near impossible to write an ending that doesn't involve the demise of the human race or the defeat of the zombie hordes. Just look at the situation Robert Kirkman finds himself with The Walking Dead comic and television series. How is he supposed to find an end to that story that doesn't involve the eventual death of all his human characters?

Zombie lore has long been in need of a kick start. Something more nuanced. Something more creative than the simple local militia walking through the field armed with rifles picking off wayward corpses (and giving poorly scripted interviews with local newscasters: "They'll all messed up!"). I was waiting for someone to take zombie lore to another level.

To a certain extent, there is a generation of writers doing just that. Experimenting with the genre, chewing it up and spitting out all sorts of interesting variables to the venerable zombie story. One of my recent favorites is Bob Fingerman's excellent novel Pariah. Another is Joan Frances Turner's exquisite 2010 novel, Dust. At the time, I heaped a good amount of praise on Turner's take on the zombie sub-genre and how she was able to finally add something interesting to the typical war of attrition that all zombie apocalypse stories eventually devolve into. I made some pretty salient points, I must admit, but since I'm not nearly Gore Vidal-ish enough to quote myself, you'll have to suffice with Douglas Preston's decidedly succinct review: "Joan Frances Turner has done for zombies what Anne Rice did for vampires." It's not a perfect encapsulation of Dust or what it entails, but if you insist on not clicking on my review, it will have to do in a pinch. Turner made zombies both more terrifying and more human at the same time. Pretty nuanced, if you ask me.

So here we are in 2013 and Turner has released the much anticipated (at least by me) sequel to Dust: Frail. If you haven't read Dust, I would recommend you read it before attempting Frail as the story picks up at the end of the Dust narrative and Frail refers back to many of the characters and events in Dust without explaining them in the sort of detail that would make anything clear.Turner, I suspect, is assuming that you read the first novel before cracking Frail. Turner takes the zombie lore into the stratosphere in her first book, so jumping into the second will leave you utterly lost, so forewarned is forearmed.

Frail is the first person account of a human named Amy. Left for dead by her mother, Amy is one of the few humans left following the zombie apocalypse and the subsequent evolution of a second species of undead creatures (known in the novels as exes) who are neither human nor zombie but have appetites larger than both (metaphor for crass consumerism, anyone?). The exes are now the clear masters and humans (or frails) have been relegated to slavery and/or food. Amy has managed to stay away from both the zombies and the exes throughout the winter but after being attacked by a starving dog in a small Indiana town, she is rescued and befriended by Lisa, an ex with a heart of gold (who just so happens to be the sister of Jessie, the protagonist zombie from Dust). Amy and Lisa embark on an, at times, surreal journey into what is left of their world and in the process uncover many of the secrets kept hidden by the local Thanological Laboratory, which, in turn, reveals the truth about zombies and exes.

I want so badly to tell you that Frail picks up where Dust left off and fleshes out (pun intended) the intriguing mythology that Turner concocted in her first book. and to be fair, Frail has some legitimately terrifying and disturbing moments, some of which I will carry for years. But I must admit that much of the book is a slow, plodding melodrama between the trails and exes, much of which is shrouded in unnecessarily convoluted dialogue. The characters often talk over Amy's head about things she doesn't understand which, in turn leaves the reader in the same situation. I was literally lost for the fist two thirds of the novel because not a single character was able to make a direct statement about what the hell was going on. Because of this, the novel seems to tread water interminably.

Furthermore, Frail's characters are depressingly forgettable. It's funny that over the years critics have derided the zombie sub-genre as two-dimensional, that zombies make terrible villains due to their utter brainlessness. lack of character, motivation, no possibility of deconstruction. Zombie stories could only be as good as the human characters involved. So it is ironic that Dust, with it's cast of zombies,  has infinitely better characters and characterization than Frail which has no zombie characters whatsoever. I never got any sense of Amy as a character other than she was slowly losing her mind, and she was the protagonist. The rest of the characters were a formless mass of dialogue that ceased to make sense very quickly. Perhaps Turner has a knack for writing from the perspective of a zombie and human frailty (pun intended) is an art best left to others.

The confusion of this novel is all too much, butt does let up. Toward the end of the novel when much of the narrative fog begins to lift, Frail begins heaping on fresh piles of new confusion in anticipation of a third book in the series (no spoilers). So while Frail does (eventually) clear up a number of outstanding questions from Dust, it does so in such a meandering way that I fear many readers will give up (or cease to care) long before the reveals.

I know I did.

it's a shame, really, because deep within Frail's narrative curlicues and cardboard characters there lies a very compelling story but it will take a Herculean effort on my part to muster the enthusiasm to read the third book in this series.