One of my favorite reads from 2016 was Carys Davies’ short story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike; a collection I have recommended to nearly everyone I know (why haven’t you read it yet?). Upon discovering Ms. Davies had a novella, West, hitting bookstores, I was excited and a little nervous – what if it didn’t live up to the brilliance of The Redemption of Galen Pike?
Carys Davies knows exactly how to tailor her work. In The Redemption… no story was too long or too short; each perfectly fit the tale. This strength of Davies’ is also evidenced in West. When the focus of any artistic endeavor is how to best relate the story, and not how to best show off, or be as experimental as possible, it raises the quality of everything involved – the skill, creativity, nuance, you name it. Carys Davies knows how to tell a story.
West is a perfect novella. Inspiring, and bittersweet – a story for dreamers and adventurers, a Don Quixote in a Coen Brother’s landscape. (Or, as my cousin describes it, Gatsby meets Cormac McCarthy). Carys Davies wins over, heart, mind, and soul, with her innate ability to seamlessly weave a tale.
Special thank you to R for introducing me to Carys Davies’ work.
Tom Hanks is quite possibly my favorite human being.
You may now proceed.
Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type contains 17 short stories, told over 416 pages. It is too much. To compare: Carys Davies’ The Redemption of Galen Pike is 17 short stories told over 144 pages. Hanks would have benefited from an editor who had him save a few stories for the next book, or, whittle down the ones in the collection. None of Hanks’ ideas, characters, or style are of poor quality or painful to read, it is simply too much in one container. While none of the stories in Uncommon Type are lacking interest, there is an inconsistency in the quality, making the weaker stories stand out.
As for the positives…there are a lot. Reading Tom Hanks reminded me of my experiences reading Steve Martin (who, interestingly enough, was the person whose encouragement helped get Tom’s writing career started), you smile through the entirety of the work. Perhaps this is in part because you are reading the work of someone you know, due to our connection with their public personas. Like their public personas, Hanks and Martin create a sense of comfort and ease in their writing. There is a homespun quality to the storytelling -that comfortable cozy feeling.
Hanks delves deep into character studies through much of his stories, understandable considering his main profession. He explores humans of various points in time, stations in life, ages, relationships, etc; digging down to the heart of all of them. if he so choses to continue down this path, Hanks certainly has a future as a writer.
Uncommon Type is the kind of collection to return to over time, whenever you need a dose of warmth.
One note: there are a couple of recurring characters; so reading the collection in order is highly recommended.
Welcome to Mars
A Month on Greene Street
The Past Is Important to Us
Stay with Us
These Are the Meditations of My Heart
Rating: 4 Used Typewriters
I became aware of Chris McCandless’ heartbreaking journey and tragic end about ten years after it occurred; a deeply disturbing transpiration. Consequently, I avoided reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, even forgoing the Sean Penn movie, because the circumstances of McCandless’ life and death are so upsetting. However, McCandless’ story intrigued me, so Into the Wild was slated to be on my 2016 list. And my 2017 list. And I vowed it would be on my 2018 list. Maybe. Then, this past October, while in a bit of a bookish funk, a dear friend encouraged me to read Into the Wild. Something about how he spoke to the work sparked me to stop putting it off. I devoured it.
Jon Krakauer’s personal investment in Chris McCandless’ tragic story and dedication to relating it in a way that provokes empathy rather than judgment makes for a vividly haunting read. Much of what people know about McCandless’ life is really just a sound bite summary of his death: Recent college grad goes on ridiculous adventure alone in the wilderness and meets his fate. Much of what people think of McCandless’ death is that he was asking for it. But, there is so much more to Chris McCandless; and Krakauer paints a multidimensional picture of the last few years of his life through the eyes of someone who feels connected to his story; who understands, on some level, his motivations.
Well, I’ve finally completed The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Mr. J.R.R. Tolkien; and yes, it was an extremely enjoyable read. But. I have a slight bone to pick with some people.
Tolkien’s genius is revealed in the world he has so fully realized in his novels. I can’t imagine the kind of brilliance and effort it took to conceive such a detailed imaginary land as Middle-earth. For that alone, Tolkien deserves endless praise. To top it off, in addition to creating an entire new world, Tolkien inhabits it with richly developed characters – he doesn’t skimp on any aspect of his creation.
The epic saga of The Lord of the Rings is obviously captivating, only a lying jerk would deny that (IMHO); the concept is solid, the players intriguing and amusing, the setting is vibrant. But, there is one little thing no one ever tells you. You can honestly skim about a fourth of the trilogy as a whole. (I’ve been told that this math is nonsensical, but it’s about 250 pages out of over a thousand.)
Now, I am not just saying that as me, Day, the girl who wants to slash every book in half. No. This is coming from me and at least 5 people who totally nerded out when I said I was finally reading The Lord of the Rings. And I am not even sharing this to be snarky or to pick apart Tolkien’s popularity. I am sharing this so that you know when you go to start in on this glorious adventure, that it is okay and completely normal to think on more than one occasion, “This is a lot of walking through the woods filler, I wonder if I can skip ahead a little.” YES. YES YOU CAN AND NO ONE WILL JUDGE YOU. The bone I have to pick isn’t with Tolkien (because…genius), it is will the 100 people who have pushed me into entering his world and left out that disclaimer which would have made me hate myself less when I had those moments of, “This is great, but, like, am I an ass***e for being ready to move ahead with the story?”
As a general summary of my feelings on the novels in the trilogy: The Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King are very strong bookends (pun actually not intended), with The Two Towers being a weaker middle in it’s first half. So, while there is a slight 2nd book slump, it is made up for in the second half of The Two Towers.
Of course I recommend the trilogy without reservation to all readers. Tolkien is a staple of literary fantasy, and for good reason. He should not be ignored.
Rating: 4 Second Breakfasts
I started writing the review for John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany 10 times. Literally. I’d get a sentence in, and then lose all direction. It has been frustrating. To be clear, I enjoyed the book. More than enjoyed, I devoured all 600 pages in two days. I am a longtime fan of John Irving; he’s the king of New England (catch that reference?). I blame A Prayer for Owen Meany for why I am so behind on my reviews; for a while I refused to write anything else until I could justly capture and comprehend the mess of feelings I have for this magical little boy.
I am a compassionate person, but I am known for tamping down this quality in myself and frequently default to cynicism and eye rolling at writings of the saccharin and sappy nature. My sense of romance and magic is offbeat (as mentioned in my review of The Princess Bride). I do, though, have an embarrassingly large soft spot for Meg Ryan romcoms (pre Kate & Leopold), but that’s a whole different bag of self-contradiction to unpack. After doing some digging, I realized this is why I had difficulty reviewing A Prayer for Owen Meany. I didn’t want to admit that the damn kid got to me. He got to me hard. And he got to me on a very personal level.
The reason John Irving is so popular in American culture is his ability to highlight the good in humanity without overselling it. None of Irving’s characters are perfect or one dimensional. They exhibit compassion and the capacity to grow. A Prayer for Owen Meany uses it’s titular character to bring out that compassion in those who surround him. As much as it would be easy for one to say that an Owen Meany type is such an extreme character, he could never exist in the real world. The truth is, we’ve all come across that person (or persons) in our lives; the ones who display that little bit of magic and inspire us to be more open with our benevolence; the ones who remind us there are no tragedies or shortcomings (no pun intended) so large that we should forget what it means to extend a hand to others; the ones that unite us through our love of them. The ones who are simply too good for this world.
A Prayer for Owen Meany hit on something specific to my life, and Irving sold me on his portrayal of it. So I don’t want to taint this beautiful and cathartic moment with addressing the weaknesses of the novel, though there are some. All I want to say is, if ever there was a time we needed the Owen Meanys of the world, it is now. So do yourself a favor and introduce yourself to him, and pay his magic forward.
Rating: 4 Armadillos
I dedicate this review to CD. All of those who knew you, even if just for a moment, use their hearts to love a little stronger, extend a little further, and embrace a little wider, because of the magic you brought to our lives. Your goodness will always live on.