The Revenant by Michael Punke


[rev-uh-nuhnt] ˈrɛvənənt/
1. a person who returns.
2. a person who returns as a spirit after death; ghost.

In Revenant, Hugh Glass is attacked by a grizzly bear, then robbed and left to die by his fellow frontiersmen. He’s beaten, broken, and emaciated. He can’t walk and he can barely eat. Even so, he vows revenge on the men who deserted him. How great does this book sound?

Early on, Glass is mauled by the bear. Want to know how bad? Here’s a description of his scalp post-bear attack:

The skin was so loose that it was almost like replacing a fallen hat on a bald man. Harris pulled the scalp across Glass’s skull, pressing the loose skin against his forehead and tucking it behind his ear. (p. 27)

After that, in true Western spirit, things go from bad to worse for Glass. If being left for dead and robbed of anything that would help him survive wasn’t enough, he also has a hallucination about being bit by a rattlesnake, gets sprayed by a skunk, and has to fight wolves. All this and he still hasn’t regained the ability to walk (OK, so fighting the wolves was a voluntary decision, but that’s just goes to show it’s no coincidence that Hugh Glass rhymes with bad ass).

But regain the ability to walk he will and it is then that the proverbial shit gets real.

Picture credit: Hunting in Yosemite, 1890 by Thomas Hill; frontiersman by Jonathan Blair.

Punke does the reader a great service in this book – he paces it perfectly and he focuses on the character that needs focus at each particular point in the story. For example, Glass is attacked and abandoned very early in the story, but instead of following the two men that abandoned him, or even updating the reader on them, the story stays with Glass. This is just what it should do. The attack, abandonment, and recovery are so intense, that I couldn’t care less about what was going on with the other characters. Fortunately, the focus of the story didn’t let me down.

If you like Western movies, you’ll really enjoy The Revenant. If the story gets too wrapped up in the physical nature of Glass’s quest, his confrontation with the weaker of his abandoners offers a satisfying psychological aspect of Glass’s desire for revenge (a brief foreshadowing of this psychological aspect is what piqued my desire for it). As a bonus, the book leaves sixty pages to catch the more evil of the two men that robbed Glass and left him for dead.

As a second bonus, The Revenant is based on a true story. Nails.

Up Next: Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States vs. Allen and Schweikhart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. I’m going to look at these books one chapter at a time and compare the differences in their subject matter, presentation, writing, and the overall strength of their arguments (since both make a claim to telling it the right way, so to speak). You can expect an introduction next week and I’ll probably add a page at the top to organize each post.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

At the risk of sounding trite, City of Thieves is a tale of two young Russian men with opposing personalities that are thrown together during World War II. Their city lay in ruins and they must count on each other for survival, which is a pipe dream at best. On top of all this, City is written as a memory of one of the men, who now lives in New York.

You may think you have heard this story before, but so what? City has at least two things going for it that make the reading worthwhile, great even.

First, for some reason, the horrible, horrible things – World War II in St. Petersburg type things – that happen in this story don’t seem bad at all. They’re awful, depressing, humanity-doubting things, but they serve only their purpose – to ground the story in wartime Russia. Sometimes these types of scenes are meant to evoke disgust or some such emotion, but if they’re meant to do that here, they don’t and the book is better off for it. Take them out, and the story will be just as good.

For example, “The rails veered away from the road, past stands of birch saplings too slender for firewood. Five white bodies lay facedown in the white snow. A family of winter dead, the dead father still clutching his wife’s hand, their dead children sprawled a short distance away. Two battered leather suitcases lay open beside the corpses, emptied of everything but a few cracked picture frames.”

Cover Design: Greg Mollica / Cover Art: Shout

OK, out of context, that’s kind of fucked up. But trust me, the deeper story in City is so good that you’ll breeze right through passages like those.

That leads me to the second great part about this novel – the novel part. City very much passes the page-turner test, which is really what novels have to do. Novels are meant to keep the reader enthralled and City does just that. The pace is perfect, with each chapter offering small story arcs that are both interesting on their own and that serve to advance the larger plot.

That’s the long and short of it. I highly recommend Benioff’s City of Thieves. It was so nice to read that I would certainly read more from Benioff.

Up Next: The Revenant by Michael Punke

The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

The main character gives up his life completely to travel Finland with an injured hare in his pocket. And somehow he’s the sanest character in the book.

I have to hand it to Paasilinna. He has taken the old picaresque story and made it interesting with this book. You don’t often see that done anymore.
But here it is. Vatanen, our main character, decides to leave his life behind after his coworker hits a hare with their car. This may sound crazy, but Vatanen isn’t exactly leaving much behind – a loveless marriage, a job he has come to despise, and no friends.
A story like this in the hands of another writer would seem ludicrous at best and amateur at worst. But Paasilinna’s wit is here to save the day. When Vatanen’s wife calls him crying because he ruined her life (not because he was leaving, mind you), he tells her, “Cry quicker, or the call’ll get too expensive.”
Yes, if you’re going to read a Huck Finn-like story, you might as well read one by a writer with a dark wit. Paasilinna’s humor takes a bit to kick in, but when it does, it hits right in the teeth. The chapter where Vatanen and his hare meet the priest is brilliant.

But The Year of the Hare is not all fun and games. Some of the most poignant scenes in the book come when Paasilinna doesn’t give the reader what they want, like when Vatanen goes up against the vacationing drunks in the cabin next door. At first the outcome was disappointing, but the more I thought about it, the more it showed Paasilinna’s guts as a writer. It was this scene that turned The Year of the Hare from a good read into a great read.
As a side note, the translation I had could have been better. It didn’t ruin the book, but it was noticeably lacking in some parts. I mean, who knows or uses words like “nous” and “baborborygmi”?
Next up: The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker

Photo courtesy of Alexander Parsonage.

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Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

The Oxford English Dictionary spans twenty volumes. It weighs 150 pounds. It is the be all and end all of English dictionaries. But it is more than that to Ammon Shea. It is the greatest version of Shea’s favorite book.
Continue reading Reading the OED by Ammon Shea”

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

I have a tough time reviewing short story books. The stories are rarely connected to one another and the best you usually get is a theme shared by all. Such is the case with Fragile Things, a collection of Gaiman’s gothic tales (yes, there are other kinds). Unlike most short story collections, however, Fragile Things has two strikes against it before readers even pick it up.

Most people know of Neil Gaiman through The Sandman, his graphic novel series. The Sandman was one of the first popular graphic novels, mainly because the story was so good. But so was the artwork, and there’s the rub. Fragile Things comes with no artwork. For someone used to having the visuals provided with a Gaiman story, this could be problem.

It is not.

Although I feel that all short stories should come with illustrations, Fragile Things, is simply great stories written by a great writer. Add to that the gothic theme and you have something very special because Gaiman is especially good at writing dark fiction. He proved this with The Sandman.

What makes or breaks it for me, though, is how I knew that each story was well written. I didn’t like every story, but no one will enjoy every story in a collection. I knew, however, that the stories I didn’t would appeal to others. Basically, Gaiman’s writing abilities are on full display.

And speaking of the stories, here’s a list of the ones I enjoyed and why I enjoyed them.
The Mapmaker – A nice little story hidden away in the introduction.

The Flints of Memory Lane – This is the perfect ghost story because it doesn’t cost the reader anything. They don’t have to believe in the supernatural forces or objects. All they have to know is that something very unusual happened and it scared someone very much. These are the best ghost stories because they are the most likely to happen to you. Bonus: This one is true.

Bitter Grounds – I hate to call this a zombie story because most zombie stories suck. So I won’t. This story is more like a dream – it picks up in the middle of nowhere with just enough background given and then somehow manages to have a definite ending that leaves much hanging.

Good Boys Deserve Favours – This is a great story for musicians, especially bass players.

Harlequin Valentine – Another great story, now available in graphic novel form.

Feeders and Eaters – This story is just creepy and cool. I’m not going to ruin it for you at all, but if you read one story in this book, and you want it to be a great and creepy story, make it this one. This was a dream Gaiman had. It was first a comic, which would probably also be pretty cool.

Diseasemaker’s Croup – This is a very interesting, very short story.

Goliath – One of the better stories in this book. Very Matrix-like. According to Gaiman, he wrote it to go on the Matrix’s website. Imagine that.

Sunbird – This was an exciting story. It works a lot like stories about the devil, although the payoff and revenge are a bit introverted. Gaiman says R. A. Lafferty was at one point “the best short-story writer in the world” and Sunbird is his attempt to write a Lafferty short story.

Up next: Reading the OED by Ammon Shea.

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh

Here’s the inner cover blurb in my copy of The Loved One:

The Loved One is a nightmare induced by the unfamiliar diet of Southern California. That region, where all men are displaced persons, is unique in the splendid elaboration of its graveyards, and to these Evelyn Waugh turned for solace and inspiration during a brief visit. Against the background of embalming-rooms and incinerators he has contrived a neat tragedy of Anglo-American manners which we hope will amuse and instruct curious readers of both nations.

How fucking awesome does that sound? Nightmares? Graveyards? Fucking incinerators? And some SoCal hating? Holyshityes.

The Loved One may be a short novel, but it is full with jabs.
At Southern California:

“Sir Ambrose, in accordance with local custom, refrained from listening.”

At female habits of the time:

“In Aimeé’s bathroom cupboard, among the instruments and chemicals which are the staples of feminine well-being, lay the brown tube of barbiturates which is the staple of feminine repose.”

At the English, in which the main character’s love interest describes his Un-Americaness:

“I do not mean just his accent and the way he eats but he is cynical at things which should be sacred.”

And at Southern California again:

“No one in Southern California, as you know, ever inquires what goes on beyond the mountains.”

But The Loved One is more than just a series of barbs. They are merely amusing (and sometimes honest) reflections in a well-told story. The plot does indeed center around graveyards, as that is where all of the main characters work. And it is a tragedy, but the most amazing aspect of Waugh’s book is the way he makes the gruesome images of death and corpses seem so plain. By doing so, the reader’s attention does not stay focused on the darkness of the setting, but on those ever present themes of love and loss and how people deal with them. A funeral home setting is perfect for this parallel and I’m surprised it is not done more often.

Waugh does an excellent job with making a short story not seem scant. The main characters are well rounded, there are supporting roles to help their motives along, and he doesn’t revel too much in unimportant scenery. On top pf that, his story of two men fighting over one woman, a story which has been told a thousand times, does not sound trite. His brutal honesty in describing everything was a refreshment of sorts and made what could of otherwise been a simple love story into an enjoyable frolic through the graveyard.

Up next: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

Consider Phlebus by Iain M. Banks

I should have known. The term “consider Phlebus” comes from our old friend T. S. Eliot. And on the very first page of Iain M. Banks’s Consider Phlebus, there is a quote from The Waste Land. It was stupid of me to pick this book up, right? Well, yes and no.

As the lead to this article says, Consider Phlebus was a strong influence on the Xbox game Halo, specifically the design of some of the Halo worlds. Fans of either this book or the video game would immediately notice the similarities, but that’s about as much as they need to be mentioned.

Instead, there are two amazing things about Consider Phlebus. One is how unbelievably boring the first two-thirds of it is and the other, conversely, is how enjoyable the last third of it is. Considering what the main character goes through, the monotony while reading it is striking. In the first 150 pages alone, our hero experiences:
– Being executed by drowning in a septic tank
– An explosion in the wall of said septic tank
– An attack on his spaceship
– Getting hit by a ray blast or something (whatever it was, it was supposed to be lethal, according to the other characters)
– A fist fight to the death
– A raid on a temple with some heavily-armed monks, in which no fewer than four other characters bit the dust
– A giant spaceship hitting an even gianter iceberg while he is walking on it (imagine the first scene from Spaceballs, except not funny)
– His spaceship crashing into the ocean, in which another character dies
– A three kilometer swim to shore
– And another execution, this time by being eaten alive (he actually ends up losing a finger so… that counts, right?)

His is Bora Horza Gobuchul, but his name should be James John Bruce Bond McClane Wayne, the Highlander. And although that list sounds like a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie marathon on TNT, it was really difficult to read. I mean really bad. It wasn’t so much about where the plot was going, but that it seemed to be taking forever to get there. I marked out one paragraph to illustrate the leaden flow of Phlebus, but after reading it again, I think I’ll spare you.

And then, somehow in the final third of the novel, Banks manages to turn the style completely around. I read the last 150 pages of Phlebus within a day. I could have read it straight through in a couple of hours, it was that interesting. I don’t know how he did it, but he did. And I don’t know how my feelings about reading Consider Phlebus went from thinking it would never end to hoping it would never end.

Phlebus is Banks’s first sci-fi novel, and the first one of a series. It is also credited with reviving the space opera sub-genre of science fiction literature. But even his fans will admit that it is only interesting to those who have read his later works, especially those later in the series it kicks off because reading Phlebus feels like going from an opera to a ZZ Top concert.

Both of which, however, are better than reading T. S. Eliot.

Up next: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

Eye Scream by Henry Rollins

Watch a few videos of Henry Rollins on YouTube and you’ll notice something – the man has some pent-up aggression. Whether he has reasons for it is not for me to say (although it usually seems like he does). But I will say this: Henry Rollins is intense. And his aggression comes out in many ways, sometimes insultingly, sometimes humorously , and sometimes sublimely tragically.

The thing about Henry Rollins is that he certainly has a way with words, which is good because I don’t think I could accurately describe Eye Scream. So I’ll let Henry do it himself. On his website, he says:

Work on Eye Scream started in 1986. I was crossing America constantly and experiencing the morality shifts, attitudes, and rituals in different parts of the country – the difference in the way people were in the Bible Belt as opposed to New York City, the way blacks and whites interfaced, the intolerance of homosexuality, the morality plays. I started to become aware of how brutal the country is and how much ferocity, cruelty, and oppression are inherent in the culture and how much of it was in me. I wanted to document it and create a book that brought the whole thing to a boil and see w here it left me off. In the summer of 1995, I finished the book and started to edit. Re-reading the manuscript over and over, I realized all the things I had picked up over a decade of playing Devil’s advocate and it was inspiring because it clearly defined who my enemies are. As an American, I feel it impossible not to be infuriated by the way things are and have been. I refuse to be happy about the day-to-day and go along with it. There’s too much spitting in my face and too much spitting in the faces of people who don’t know any other way of life. This book is brutal, and at times, funny. I know that I will probably get a ton of shit for Eye Scream. Enjoy, or better yet… don’t. — Henry Rollins

But that is one of the interesting things about Eye Scream. Rollins’ blurb seems at odds with the book. The style of his explanation is focused, while the book is all over the place. In his spoken word stints, Rollins has a talent for being poignant, but funny and edgy at the same time. In Scream, on the other hand, Rollins is ranting and rambling, shocking but without context. And worse of all, it is repetitive. Or so I thought.

The amazing thing about Eye Scream is how my opinion changed while reading it. At first, I felt it was shocking just to be shocking. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason and certainly no structure. After about sixty pages, I went online to see if the story was going to get anywhere. That’s how desperate its insanity had made me; how much I felt like I was falling down a pointless rabbit hole.

Fortunately, except for Rollins’ review (which certainly helped), I didn’t find anything else online because after plugging away at Eye Scream, I began to realize a few things. The repetitiveness of the rants, which seemed to be the book’s major fault when I started reading it, is actually the most powerful aspect of the work.

I believe repetition can sometimes breed complacency, or numbness when it comes to repetitive accounts of shocking stories. This then makes you wonder how such shocking things can have no effect on you. Think about how much thought or emotion you devoted to the earthquake in Haiti compared to the earthquake in South America (donate here).

But the repetitive articles in Eye Scream, which make you feel almost nothing, stand in stark contrast to the ones that are really powerful. You wind up plodding through the mud when BAM! you’re hit by an article that fires on levels. And I mean that. There are some very amazing, concise, and revelatory parts of Eye Scream.

The only bad part about the book is that most of the rants are so raw that they verge on being simplistic, which in my experience is not typical of Henry Rollins. And yet while the insight that is encouraged here is raw and emotional, rather than intellectual and calculated, it causes the after shock to be profoundly self-reflective, as if the extrovert of the narrator brings out the introvert of the reader.

The shocking nature of some of the rants makes reading Eye Scream akin to watching Requiem for a Dream. In a way, I’m glad I experienced it, but I would not want to experience it again. In Eye Scream, Henry Rollins yet again caused me to think, only this time it was in a totally different way. Instead of mixing facts with his own opinions to lead me to a conclusion, as is common in his spoken words, his book made me open my own eyes.

Up next: Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks. Check it here.

This article first appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread.

The Fellowship of the Frog by Edgar Wallace

I love mystery stories. I think it’s because they are immune to being kitschy. It seems that the more tackier a mystery can be, the more I want it. The shady gentlemen, the clever yet unconventional detectives, the femmes fatales – I can’t get enough of them. If a mystery has these things, I will read it.

But I have a tough time writing or talking about mystery novels. I feel like I should admit that it’s a lowbrow genre. I mean you’ll never see a Noble being awarded for a series of mystery books (Right? I haven’t done my research.). But at the same time, the features that can make a highbrow novel unreadable, can make a mystery all the more enjoyable. Mysteries, in my view, can easily get away with stereotyped characters and cheesy dialogue. In any other sort of genre, thrillers included (Hi, Dan Brown!), these features will hurt the value of the writing. In mysteries, on the other hand, they are expected and encouraged, in my view at least. But on to the case!

The Fellowship of the Frog starts out with the murder of an undercover detective at the hands of the Frog, the mysterious leader of an ever increasing group of tramps. The Fellowship, so called because of the frog tattoos on the members’ hands, has become so expansive that they threaten the international affairs of England.

The Frog sprechen the Deutsch?

Enter Dick Gordon and Elk, the rozzers on the case of the Frog. Gordon is dashing, Elk doesn’t play by the book. Gordon wants the girl, Elk wants a promotion. In other words, they’re perfect for me. But the questions they have to answer are many:
Who is that strange American who keeps turning up at interesting places?
Who is the Frog and how can they stop him?
Is the Fellowship of the Frog really the coolest name for mystery novel? (Yes. Sweet baby Jesus, yes.)
Will Dick Gordon and Miss Bennett be able to live happily ever after?
Is Elk’s mangling of important historical dates funny way to round out his character? (Ugh, no.)
Will all of these questions be neatly wrapped up in the end? (You better believe it. The Frog is no match for my rules of good mystery writing)

I don’t see much point in running down the whole plot for you. After all, you’re either going to read the Fellowship of the Frog, or you’re going to read a mystery like it. Besides being an enjoyable read, there’s nothing about Fellowship to really set it apart from other mysteries, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good. One of the things I liked best about the book was most likely due to the time it was written. Apparently, in 1920s mystery novels, a man didn’t merely sit down, he “dropped with a sigh to the Chesterfield”. Also, in Frog-ravished England, facial hair is whiskers, telephones are ‘phones, and omnibuses are ‘buses. Ah, those were the days.

Fellowship does have some short-comings, though. One of the most obvious is the way it has only two female characters – a safe, gentle one and a dangerous, provocative one. Guess which one the detective gets in the end? This two-women-only syndrome isn’t as bad as it is in the Bond films, but it’s very obvious that these women are not really characters at all. The one oohs and aahs, the other woos and wails. But I suppose novels like Fellowship weren’t really written with women in mind.

For those of you that are interested, Fellowship was made into at least one movie (as were 160 of Wallace’s other books, including King Kong). I can’t say whether the dialogue remains true, but I can leave you with some of the original.

One of my favorite lines from Fellowship comes in a character’s description of Lola, the appropriately named saucy female of the story. He says to her, “… I like you. There’s something about you that is very attractive – don’t stop me, because I’m not gong to get fresh with you, or suggest that you’re the only girl that ever made tobacco taste like molasses…” If a guy complimented you like that, girls, would you stop him?

I didn’t think so.

Up next: Eye Scream by Henry Rollin. Check it here.

The article originally appeared on Better Than Sliced Bread