Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review of The Dog Stars

Peter Heller is a great writer, plain and simple. Storyteller and poet, he really digs in to the emotional landscape of his characters. He knows what motivates them, and helps the reader to experience them from the inside. Almost to an overwhelming degree.

For those who don’t know Peter Heller, he writes very stream-of-consciousness, which quickly spirals into stream-of-dialogue, stream-of-grammar, and stream-of-whatever-the-Heller-feels-like-writing-at-the-time. His style does take some getting used to, but over all I like it. Those who have achieved mastery of the English language, and truly understand it, have a right and a duty to smash it too pulp and build something new from the ruin. Language is always being reinvented unconsciously, so why shouldn’t the masters reinvent it consciously? This is what poetic license has always represented in my mind—playing with language—and I love when prose is proven a malleable thing, like any other human creation.

There are obvious comparisons being made between this book and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I have to admit that I was wondering if reading this would feel redundant, but there were enough differences to make me happy I read it. The primary difference, other than a more dynamic flexibility in literary style and emotional exuberance, is the way the world looks through Hig’s eyes. He’s much more optimistic, he still struggles morally (McCarthy’s character’s—the father’s—orientation to the world is pretty-much mineralized into deeply-set convictions and instinctual reflexes by environmental hopelessness), he is looking for new love, he still has conversations with himself (the internal dialogue of McCarthy’s man is minimal and all but smothered by anguish), and he is still able to connect with nature (though, to be fair, the nuclear holocaust of McCarthy’s world—versus the flu epidemic and global warming of Heller’s planet—leaves a lot less flowers to stop and smell). This doesn’t mean that I liked Heller’s character better, but I was happy for a change from McCarthy’s protagonist’s motives which stemmed mostly from animalistic survival and procreative instinct which included his son’s welfare. 

HOWEVER, while I like most of what I read from Heller, I was absolutely turned off by Heller’s sex scenes. I’ll admit that I generally don’t relish hearing other people—especially guys—talk about their latest sexual capers, but Heller’s description of Hig’s sexual encounters and his poetic descriptions of hard-ons, oral sex, and orgasms seemed to be an interesting—not really—infusion of erotic romance and voluptuous aesthetics into an otherwise rugged, elementally tempering narrative. Not to say that there shouldn’t have been a development or flowering of the finer sensibilities—intellectual, emotional, and sexual—because I do believe that was part of the redeeming value of Heller’s more aesthetic and emotive style, but the writer’s insistence on fully exposing the more euphoric organ-play of two of his characters seemed a bit too tender and over-exposed. I’m sure we all have our spectrum of how much we want to hear about each other’s most intimate moments, but I’m of the opinion that, in this case, the more graphic opening of the carnal delicacies, in a setting as vicious, hostile, and unforgiving as this story, feels uncalculated and gratuitous. Or maybe it felt mostly like poor timing. (This coming from a guy –me—who has read 50 Shades and recognizes that erotica has a place in all world literature, even in the Bible). I wouldn’t have minded an outline or an allusion to the encounters, but full-on play-by-plays of giggling, licking, fingering, ejaculating…. c’mon! It’s like someone recounting their night of crazy sex in sensuous detail over donuts and coffee. We get it, you’re a horn-dog! Is it too much to ask NOT to have vicarious story-sex right now?!

Moving on.

Hig’s inner conflict is between surviving, and loving. His dubious friend, Bangley, represents an iron-clad fortress into which no one walks without being first invited. He shoots first then asks questions. Hig wonders about the consequences of this kind of life.  “”Never ever negotiate. You are negotiating your own death…[but] Follow Bangley’s belief to its end, and you get a ringing solitude…the cold stars.” He waffles between the extremes of defense and vulnerability, and this really makes the story because it forces readers to look inside themselves at a similar struggle between love and vulnerability. The real complication comes when Hig still has to live and make decisions, regardless of whether or not he has come to a firm decision.

“Well, anyway Hig, whether you are a good man or a bad man, or just a pretty good man in a fucked up world, you are going to have to land the Beast first. Put her down in a rolling rocky county with one road that is no longer a road.”

Don’t we all, Hig, don’t we all.

Best line from the book: “We should have all paid more attention to the Left Side [of the Bible] I am thinking now. The Wrong Side, the Side Where Shit Goes Really, Really Wrong.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review of The Only 127 Things You Need

Every once in a while I get the happy “I-can-die-now” feeling, and I honestly feel like if I died in the next few minutes I would be satisfied with life. Other times, death—even a late, natural death—sounds like an insult and even a crime against me and all of humanity. I want that first feeling as much as I can in life, rather than feeling that sick feeling like life is speeding by way too fast and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. It’s not that I want to die before my time, but I want to get my fill of it and have a grateful feeling for life, and not one of resentment towards God, nature, or, worse, myself.

I want to live, as Thoreau put it,

“…deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

I know by now that I have to grow used to the music of life flowing on, forever on, and appreciate the change as much as I appreciate the beauty. The change is a part of the beauty! But is there anything we can do to help us soak in every minute and fully appreciate and experience all there is in this short life to experience? Have I been missing out of anything that could potentially have made my life more fully of love, happiness, adventure, and beauty? Can I feel ‘finished’ or at least ‘full’ by the end of life so I don’t have to feel like I have anything left to do? Obviously these questions can’t be answered by a single book, but this is one of the best attempts I’ve seen any author make of cataloging those human needs and desires that must not go unheeded, and making a herculean effort to answer questions and suggest solutions that can help us live the best life we can. While this book looks on the cover to be the latest self-help book with generic information and platitudes about a happy life, I can assure you that there is some real muscle here for the more serious of ‘optimal-life’ connoisseurs.

Wilkinson has researched and solicited advice from the top experts in their fields to provide hard-core information for her readers. That is not to say that I was surprised by everything I read, but if I wasn’t surprised to learn something, it was because I already read about it in other books or health/brain magazines. It’s all legit, and it provides the latest research in all fields. Also, I was very surprised to find it so balanced: hardly anything was emphasized more than it ought to have been, and everything was touched on that I felt needed to be touched on. In other words, nearly all my questions going in were answered! When does that ever happen? And I trusted the advice from Wilkinson and her experts, which is another thing jaded victims of magazine-culture and self-help commercialism have a hard time coming to terms with regarding these types of books.

The “127” in the title was nonsense as a specific number, but it is poking fun at the fact that there are always more things that so-called experts are telling us we need, and this book is hoping to be the apex of up-to-date compendiums for body-mind-soul health…for now. The book is broken into the following sections and topics:

1. Body (food, sleep, exercise, overall wellness, clothing, and shelter and safety.
2. Mind (love and connection, a sense of control, mindfulness and acceptance, authenticity, and mental exercise)
3. Spirit (oneness and connection, reflection, awe and wander, sense of purpose, meaningful ritual)
I honestly can’t think of an area of growth and happiness that was neglected, and it was interesting to read the whole way through. However, as engaging as it was, it may help readers, like it did me, to take the book in piecemeal to better absorb the information. There’s a lot here that could change your life…you don’t want to rush it. Matter of fact, I would go as far as to say that if you truly work at applying what you learn from this book, I don’t see any reason in the world why you wouldn’t be a stronger, happier, more fulfilled person. This stuff works. But don’t take my word for it. Wait, yes, take my word for it. I’m living it.

A word of caution: there is a slant in the last book—Spiritual Health—towards spiritualism, but it quickly generalizes into spiritual health practices for any value/religious system and doesn’t get to metaphysical. Other than that, a specifically spiritual-religious emphasis throughout the book seems to be either non-existent or appropriately subtle.

I have no doubt in my mind that Donna Wilkinson is a very intelligent and happy author who genuinely cares about others and wants to help improve the quality of life of those around her. As a frequent reader of psychology and philosophy, I can tell you that this is really good stuff on a relatively low shelf for readers of all kinds. It’s essential for anyone wanting to better their life, especially for those struggling with negativity, anxiety, or depression.

You know how there’s no ‘owner’s manual’ on life waiting for you when you pop out your mama’s uterus? Well, this might be the closest thing to it.