Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

jesus' sonThis is an intense, gritty collection of connected short stories that is almost a novel. The unnamed narrator (known only as Fuckhead) is clearly the same guy throughout, as we follow him through a nearly-chronological series of adventures in drug abuse, petty crime and violence, depravity and apathy. Also novelistically, there is something of an arc: the story ends with our narrator living sober with a part-time job, muddling along in a dingy, not-guilt-free version of redemption. It is not clearly told; the narrator is addled and deluded, and so is his story-telling style; it is performative of the character.

There is beauty throughout, as well. It is a fascinating, glittering series of tales in its emotional range and its tolerance for different viewpoints. Jesus’ Son has the power to entertain and amuse, to disturb and disquiet, and to uplift all at once. It is a strange, powerful creation.

Rating: 7 hits.

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

In this memoir, a young man with a Yale law degree and a promising career remembers the hillbillies he grew up with and makes a plea for improving their conditions.

hillbilly elegy

J.D. Vance is a graduate of Yale Law School with a promising career and a happy marriage, and roots “in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember.” Vance’s people were among the many poor who migrated along the “hillbilly highway” from the hills of southeastern Kentucky into the Rust Belt but always considered Kentucky home.

In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance tells of a poverty-stricken community distrustful of outsiders and plagued by addiction, self-defeating attitudes and chaotic home lives. He credits his Mamaw and Papaw with giving him the tools to move beyond that community. Vance graduated from college and law school and achieved a healthy relationship by the slimmest of margins, but not without paying a price: social mobility implies movement “to a theoretically better life, yes, but also away from something.” In Vance’s case, moving toward financial security and calm meant alienating himself from those he still identifies with: “I am a Scots-Irish hillbilly at heart.”

Mamaw and Papaw are not saints. Vance’s gun-toting grandmother was given to off-color language and threats of violence. Such vivid characters and an eye for nuance are among the strengths of this sincere memoir, an elegy for both the hillbillies Vance has loved, and a large population of struggling, working-class poor. He offers ideas for improving his people’s lot: cultural change from within rather than policy. But the bulk of Hillbilly Elegy is just that: a loving remembrance of imperfect but dearly beloved individuals, who did their best with what they had.

This review originally ran in the July 1, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 trips to the holler.

movie: Dirty Harry (1971)

I watched this movie because of a tiny mention of it in the description of a seminar I was preparing to attend. It was totally unnecessary as prep but what the heck, it was an excuse to see a classic I’d never seen before.

dirty harryWell, heck. I’m sure I’m supposed to admire this one, and I can certainly acknowledge that it must have looked much different in 1971. 1971. Do you realize that was 45 years ago? Golly. How old was Clint Eastwood in 1971? (He was 41 years old in 1971.)

This one is too well-known and much-written-about for me to waste many words on plot summation. “Dirty Harry” is Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department, and he is investigating a crazed killer who calls himself Scorpio. Harry is a curmudgeonly fellow who is unhappy to be paired with the new, “young” cop Chico (who doesn’t look any younger than Harry to me).

So, in a different era, this movie must have had a very different effect on audiences. Some old films seem to hold up better than others. Here, I just found too much to pick at. How does $200,000 in tens and twenties fit into a little handbag? How did the doctor know to call in about the guy with the knife wound? (Presumably they put out an APB, but off-screen?) And with Harry being such an experienced investigator and all, it didn’t really ring true for me that he got his first lesson in evidence admissibility, legal searches, etc. in that lawyer’s office on this case. Maybe I’ve seen too many police procedurals. Finally, Harry’s classic line about how many bullets are left in the gun and do you feel lucky, punk? really fell short for me considering that other guns seemed to have unlimited bullets in them (as others also caught). Husband joked, “what are these, Walking Dead guns?” Ha.

More broadly, the killer Scorpio’s motivations, or the nature of his psychopathy, are never made clear. Again, maybe I’ve seen too many more modern shows. Harry’s general “dirty” attitude likewise receives no explanation or backstory. It’s just a shoot-em-up, and for pure shock effect, the 45 years that have passed since filming have done this film no favors. Perhaps if I had the nostalgia to attach me…

Sorry, fans.

Rating: 5 bullets.

movie: Stand by Me (1986)

Some months from now, you will see my review of Stephen King’s The Body, by Aaron Burch. One of the Bookmarked series, this slim book combines personal essay with literary appreciation – or in this case, film appreciation. Stand by Me is a movie based on Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” out of Different Seasons (a collection that also included “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). For this reason, I put the book down halfway through to see this movie for the first time.

stand by meReleased in 1986, set in flashbacks to 1959, Stand by Me stars River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell as four childhood friends. Over a weekend, they hike through the woods to view the dead body of a boy their age, learning along the way about friendship and loss. It is a coming-of-age story.

I think I can see Burch’s attachment to this film, but it had a different effect on me, coming to it in adulthood. The emotional tones are there: sweet friendship, the pain of helpless childhood and loss at any time of life, nostalgia. I get them all, but I can see from here how they work; I didn’t get bowled over as Burch did. It is undeniably a sweet and sad story, though.

I marveled at how loving these boys are: lots of hugging, arms around one another, extended eye contact, explicit words of comfort. Have we gotten more homophobic as a culture since these days? I can’t see little boys loving each other this earnestly and physically today, which is sad. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am.

I enjoyed the humor, the pathos and the loving friendships. It was worth my time – especially in being able to appreciate Burch’s story. But I’m afraid it doesn’t have the same effect on an adult today that it did on a kid in the 1980’s, and I regret that. I’m also interested in “The Body” now (of course).

A worthwhile snapshot in time, but not one that reads the same now, unsurprisingly.

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

The Believer, issue 113: Chippy (fall 2015)

A little background: I’m working on developing as a reader and a writer, and approaching another graduate degree, this time in creative writing. As part of that process, I’m trying to read more literary journals. This is something we’re told to do if we want to get published by those journals, both to familiarize ourselves with what individual publications like and seek, and to support them. Over the course of six months or so, I’ve done a decent job of acquiring a bunch of print issues, but not such a great job of reading them. This summer, my resolution is to read a journal every Tuesday.

I don’t expect I’ll be writing about every one, but those I appreciate should certainly get a little space here at pagesofjulia. And that’s why I’m writing about The Believer today.

believer113The format is a little different. The table of contents is on the back cover, rather than in the first few pages. One element, the interview with Sheila Nevins (of HBO Documentary Films), is presented in pieces – “microinterviews” – spread throughout the issue. There are very few ads, and The Believer is printed on heavier, off-white paper, with nearly cardstock-weight covers. I’m sorry I don’t know the terms for these paper characteristics, but it’s got a nice feel in the hand. Oh, wait, here it is (from the website):

Each issue is perfect-bound and 128 pages, printed by friendly Canadians on recycled, acid-free, heavy-stock paper and suitable for archiving, framing in a very thick frame, or reading in the tub.

And despite the title, it’s got nothing to do with religion, or anything like that.

Also from the website, The Believer is

a bimonthly literature, arts, and culture magazine. In each issue, readers will find journalism and essays that are frequently very long, book reviews that are not necessarily timely, and interviews that are intimate, frank, and also very long.

In other words, overwhelmingly nonfictional and unafraid to go on a bit. I found the writing consistently very fine, and the widely-ranging subjects consistently fascinating. This is, in short, a magazine I want to read regularly. I am less sure that there is a place for my own writing on these pages (and if that’s self-centered, recall my original motivation in reading lit mags regularly), but that’s okay. I like finding good reading – obviously.

As to timing, I will note that the website still shows this issue, from Fall 2015, as the current issue. So I wonder a bit about their bimonthly-ness.

The highlights of issue 113, for me, included:

  • Kea Krause’s “What’s Left Behind,” about the nasty environmental disaster of a flooded copper mine on the edge of Butte, Montana. This piece made me think of Robert Michael Pyle, and hope that they know about one another.
  • Daniel Handler’s “What the Swedes Read,” a column in which he’ll read one book by each Nobel Laureate – this time, The Sovereign Sun by Odysseus Elytis, trans. by Kimon Friar. Handler’s often confused reading of these allusive poems, with frequent research digressions (“Out of my way, poem! I’m trying to understand you! Surely my loopy research was a disservice to poem and reader alike.”), really spoke to me and summed up some of my problems with poetry.
  • Ross Simonini’s interview with Miranda July finally got me really intrigued by this woman I’ve heard about here and there: now I want to check out her novel, The First Bad Man. Also, I was wowed by Simonini’s question, when July mentions that some of her early work embarrasses her: “Embarrassing because it wasn’t done well, or because it revealed something?” That is an exemplary interviewer: quick on his feet with an insightful question I wish I’d asked.

I’m excited to have discovered The Believer. I hope the missing issues of 2016 turn up, and I hope I can find the time to make this part of my regular reading.

Rating: 8 articles long enough to get lost in.

guest review: Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert, from Mom

My mother is here today to guest-review a book to which she brings special expertise. Mom has a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Houston; used to teach English as a foreign language to adults in community college settings; and now volunteers her time tutoring English language learners one-on-one. The disclosure here is that I was sent a free copy of this book in exchange for my mother‘s honest review. (It’s fun how that fact plays off this book’s title.) Thanks, Mom!

mother tongue

Christine Gilbert is quite the adventurous spirit. She tells the story in Mother Tongue about her quest to learn three languages – Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish – in less than three years, while living in three countries. This adventure includes a baby who acquires a sibling along the way. She and her husband have few ties to the U.S., and are able to work remotely. Thus they are perfectly placed for the language quest.

The quest is primarily hers, but includes her son as he grows and learns the local language effortlessly, as children do. (Her back-story includes a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s disease, and she learns of brain research that suggests that young bilinguals have an advantage over monolinguals that gives about five extra years before onset of Alzheimer’s.) She sets out to understand language learning theories, while researching all the logistics of moving house and choosing the places.

Gilbert does her homework on language acquisition theory, and she makes her case for total immersion (no hanging out with English speakers!). She works long days in language study. In the beginning – Beijing during a very cold winter with pollution too severe for the family to go out much – she chooses to hire a tutor for working at home, as well as a housekeeper who doesn’t speak English. When a crisis takes the family away suddenly, she reviews her experience and decides complete isolation within the foreign country is not the only way to absorbing language and culture. Each move and new setting will bring more lessons, and Gilbert gets quite good at her tasks.

This is not a dry tome about memorizing vocabulary for long hours. We make friends along the journey, we learn to talk and savor local food. Gilbert is a fun character, and her husband’s story is equally interesting; the book is a travel story on lots of levels. As a parenting and family dynamics study, Mother Tongue is yet another book. I’ve been involved enough in the bigger story to follow her adventures as told on her blog, and can reveal that this is an unending quest – two more countries appear there, and since I haven’t looked lately, who knows where they may be now.

This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live by Melody Warnick

A chronic mover seeks to settle down, and offers practical, accessible steps for readers to follow.

this is where you belong

When Melody Warnick, her husband and their two children moved for the sixth time in 13 years, from Austin, Tex. to Blacksburg, Va., she started to wonder if this new town would be a panacea, or if perhaps she was chasing an impossible dream. Had her family’s search for happiness via mobility been a form of magical thinking? So began the work of This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live.

Warnick approaches the goal of settling, or of loving where she lives, enthusiastically and broadmindedly. Research is a major component of her work, but it never feels that way. Warnick consults social sciences studies and conducts myriad interviews, and distills what she learns into conversational musings that make the reader feel a part of the process. In the opening chapter, she identifies 10 “place attachment behaviors,” which form the chapters that follow. These include walking more, volunteering, exploring nature and creating something new. For each behavior, she sets a goal and records her progress; each chapter ends with a “love your city checklist” of suggested actions. This Is Where You Belong is a carefully documented experiment, explicitly designed for readers to replicate in their own lives.

By the end, Warnick has established herself as a fallible, likable everywoman, and her struggle to love Blacksburg comes to represent a universal concern. Her journey to feeling attached to where she lives is scientific and packed with research, but also feels like an old friend’s casual banter. This practical exercise in intentional place-based happiness is for the homesick and the optimistic alike.

This review originally ran in the June 24, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 8 ticks on a list.

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