F250 by Bud Smith

Kim suggested recently that we take a brief break from the list in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books and talk about some of the other books we’ve been reading recently that we think people should know about. Kim did that last week and discussed a few, and now it’s my turn. The moment she suggested it, I knew I was going to be talking about F250 by Bud Smith.

Right before the kid with the bloody face appears, a glass smashes in the kitchen. Someone shouts. I do nothing. I barely live here. My things are still in the pickup. Seth is trashed. I’m still horribly sober.

This is my first day back. There’s a purple Post-it note lying dusty on Seth’s coffee table. The note is dated months earlier, when I was probably in Idaho or Utah or Arizona or on the moon. It says, simply, “Call Natalie.”

Sure. That’s exactly what I want to do with my life, call Natalie. But here I am, on the back deck, alone, in-between calling her and not calling her—a state of telephone limbo. I should be getting trashed with everyone else at the party at this dilapidated house.

Lee Casey is at a stuck point in his life. He’s back at home after cruising the countryside aimlessly, doing small stonework jobs that do at least make him happy, off the track of those around him who’d started to grow up and go to college. He’s among friends similarly shipwrecked in a house that was supposed to be torn down months ago. It’s cool though, because they’re going to take their band to L.A. They’re going to really get going…except Lee knows they aren’t. He knows it isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t.

He’s grounded and honest, taking pleasure in the solid things he has, but there aren’t really enough of those. His truck is the best metaphor for his life, a beat up monster he uses for hauling stone and cement with a tremendous amount of force…but little to no brakes:

There were a lot of crashes—into people, places, things, whatever was around. The truck was too heavy, I was weighed down, springs sagged, hills were too steep, roads were too slick—I couldn’t control it.

Too heavy, weighed down, couldn’t be controlled. Not the best idea, but not really one about which there was a whole lot of choice. You could just as accurately say these things about Lee’s life as his truck.

Still, though there is a lot Lee cannot control (a girl who cheats on him, a friend OD’ing, the trajectory of the band, and so on), there are some things that Lee simply does not control. He gets hung up on the big picture and doesn’t always take what control he can. You can’t really blame that; many people’s lives go that way.

When I think of Lee Casey after reading, I’m reminded of that ‘beaten yet blessed’ thing Kerouac supposedly said to describe the beat generation. I don’t know whether Kerouac really said what I think he did, but it fits the main character of F250 so well that I’m going with it. Beaten yet blessed, that’s Lee Casey in a nutshell. He’s had some pretty bad things happen for him, but some pretty good things too. He’s a good guy and doesn’t have a whole lot, but he can appreciate what he has and a certain kind of light seems to shine on him. It’s cool, and it’s delivered in some wonderful prose.

F250 often comes across quiet, though there is plenty of noise, but it moves with the relentless force of that F-250 with bad brakes. To some extent, we’re just fooling ourselves that there is any control…but we still need to take what control we can without sweating the rest. Lee Casey has a lot to say that you need to hear, but it’s not something he can say direct. You got to read the book; then you’ll get it.

In Which Promises Are Broken

I know, I told you here, that I would be talking more about Pablo Neruda today.

But, finding a book of his that -isn’t- his love poetry has proven to be near impossible.  I finally had my library look and see if they could get it inter library loan and luckily they can.  But that means I will not have it in my hands for at least a few more days.

So, today, we are going to talk about other things I have read recently that I feel are definitely worth checking out.

I counted today (I write down everything I read in a tiny notebook, for curiosity’s sake) and I have read about 65 books this year (more if you count all of the Walking Dead graphic novels separately, which I did not since it felt like cheating.  Some of those have been re-reads, some audio books, some fairly fun and easy books to read.  Some have been more “literary”.  I’m just going to list the ones that I definitely want to recommend on.

The most recent one I read is Confessions by Kanae Minato.  It is a novel originally written in Japanese, for Japan readers.  It was a really engaging book, about a teacher whose four year old daughter dies.  On her last day of teaching at the school, she informs the class that it wasn’t an accident, that two students murdered her daughter.  She then informs them of the revenge she exacted.  The novel is about the domino effect of all of that.  It explores the idea of revenge and retribution.  What the possible outcome can be of knowing a murderer.  The minds of the killers.  And the teacher’s final revenge.  Parts of the book felt slightly awkward, but I think that’s more due to translation.  My only random negative thought was that the teacher has a couple of parts where she is talking to someone (not her class, that monologue is written beautifully) and seems to be able to go on for minutes without interruption.  If you’re looking for something different to read, check Confessions out.

I also have read quite a few YA novels.  The one I loved the most was Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Ms. Rowell comes from the Omaha area and her books all reflect that.  The geographic area of all of her novels that I have read, center on Omaha and Lincoln.  Eleanor and Park is a tale that takes place in the mid 80s, about two very young teenagers (Eleanor and Park).  Eleanor comes from a very poor house, with a crap step father.  Park comes from a very loving home, but is half Korean (I think Korean, it’s been a few months since I’ve read it).  Quite unwillingly at first on Park’s part, they become friends. Then they become more.  This book really beautifully showed the powerlessness that kids have.  And how that powerlessness can conflict so strongly against their desire to take action, to fix things, to rescue people and things.  It also deals with how people can fit in the weirdest places, sometimes without even knowing.  There is a sense of melancholy to Eleanor and Park that appealed to me.

I listened to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver as well.  This is a YA novel.  It’s about a girl who dies in a car accident after a day with her popular friends and the people that they make fun of, and the insensitivity they have.  She wakes up on the day of her death.
And relives it.  Making different choices that show how each action sparks another action.  It has a Groundhog Day vibe.  It deals with who you really are underneath it all and what ends up really mattering in the end.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.  I resisted reading this book for the longest time, as when I had started it in the past it had seemed like just another “chick lit” book set in England and I had exhausted my craving for those years ago.  But, then I really sat down and read it.  And it’s definitely not your normal book.  The ending is both expected and unexpected.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  This memoir is stunning in how much Ms. Walls really brings to life both a childhood lived in extreme poverty, but also a childhood lived with eccentric and most likely mentally ill parents.  I know this book was in vogue a few years ago with everyone around raving about it.  I just didn’t read it then.

Enjoy!

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Rome!

I hardly think anyone would find it odd if I admitted to a certain fascination with ancient Rome. Greece too, but definitely Rome. It’s hardly uncommon. Western civilization has long, long had on obsession with Rome…pretty much back to the time of Rome, or close thereafter.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves has that going for it right off the bat. It’s set up as a fictional autobiography of Claudius, the weakling stutterer and assumed idiot who ends up somehow becoming emperor. It’s amazing enough that he manages to survive at all, much less that he manages to survive through all of the poisonings, betrayals, and frantic infighting that accompany the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, and Caligula.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Arthur Golden)

Claudius suffers much throughout the book, picked on and pushed around by almost everybody, but it’s certainly clear that he isn’t an idiot. He’s highly intelligent, honest, and fiercely committed to the ideals of the Republic. Unfortunately, he has to mostly keep to keeping his head down and trying not to die. He just doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, and this is Rome at a very bloody time.

I have mentioned Briseis, my mother’s old freedwoman. When I told her that I was leaving Rome and settling at Capua she said how much she would miss me, but that I was wise to go. “I had a funny dream about you last night, Master Claudius, if you’ll forgive me. You were a little lame boy; and thieves broke into his father’s house and murdered his father and a whole lot of relations and friends; but he squeezed through a pantry-window and went hobbling into the neighborhood wood. He climbed up a tree and waited. The thieves came out of the house and sat down under the tree where he was hiding, to divide the plunder. Soon they began to quarrel about who should have what, and one of the thieves got killed, and then two more, and then the rest began drinking wine and pretending to be great friends; but the wine had been poisoned by one of the murdered thieves, so they all died in agony. The lame boy climbed down the tree and collected the valuables and found a lot of gold and jewels among them that had been stolen from other families: but he took it all home with him and became quite rich.”

I smiled. “That’s a funny dream, Briseis. But he was still as lame as ever and all that wealth could not buy his father and family back to life again, could it?”

“No, my dear, but perhaps he married and had a family of his own. So choose a good tree, Master Claudius, and don’t come down till the last of the thieves are dead. That’s what my dream said.”

Frankly, if you wanted to distill I, Claudius down to a couple, simple paragraphs, that would be it. That’s the book in a nutshell.

Course, we all know that Claudius is going to die sooner or later…whether or not in this book. We all know Claudius has been dead for almost two thousand years. We know at least one of the thieves wasn’t dead when he came down from his tree. Still, the above is pretty much the story of Claudius.

I’ve got to love I, Claudius for the historical period Graves manages to convey. I still go both ways on some of the more modern language elements Graves uses, though. A lot comes off as if Claudius was from the current era. It’s more readable than if it was more period accurate language-wise, but it does make it seem a little less Roman. Let’s not forget that my fascination with Rome is one of the reasons I was in I, Claudius to begin with.

Regardless, I did enjoy I, Claudius. I’m just not sure I’m going to read the other volume (Claudius the God). I, Claudius was kind of enough.

The Poems of Pablo Neruda

Today, (and in two weeks time), I’m going to be talking about Pablo Neruda and his poetry. Chitra Divakaruni listed Neruda as a Top Ten.

Neruda was born as Ricardo Eliezer Neftali Reyes y Basoalto. He adopted Neruda as a pseudonym from a Czech poet. He was born in the early 1900s in Chile. His mother died shortly after his birth from tuberculosis. His father remarried and Neruda grew up with his step mother and half siblings. At 19, while at school studying to be a French teacher, he published a book of poetry that when translated into English became 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Neruda also wrote 100 Love Sonnets. It’s these two collections I’m going to be talking about today.

As he grew older, Neruda discovered politics, and became a Communist. His poetry changed through that time, as all poets evolve with their poetry (much as novelists, short story authors and painters do). His “non-love” poems are what I’m going to try to talk about in two weeks.

Neruda was many things in his life, including a Nobel Prize winner in 1971. He was actively involved in Chilean politics, as a diplomat, a senator, a political outcast (when Communism was outlawed in 1948, there was a warrant for his arrest, he hid with friends and escaped to Argentina, later returning to Chile.) and an adviser to subsequent Chilean governments.

Neruda isn’t as well known in America as he is the rest of the world. Many disagreed with his politics, and anyone with a grasp of history knows how a Communist poet would have been regarded during certain time frames of our history here in the United States. However, in the last few years, he is becoming more widely known.

His writing is…stunning. I don’t have many other words for it. His love poetry (and his other poems, I’m sure) entangle a lot of nature into them. He has had the term Whitmanesque applied to him. Neruda died in 1973. Here are a couple of websites I liked for biographical information on him (and yes, one is Wikipedia). Go here for the non Wikipedia site.

I will offer a word of advice before reading Neruda’s work. Parcel them out. I tried to read too many in too short of a period of time so the nature imagery began to run together a bit for me. But even with that happening, there were so many stunning uses of imagery, language and message that Neruda had that I wanted to throw it all down and write poetry myself. But as that part of my brain has atrophied and I know that anything I could manage to get onto paper after reading one of the masters would cause me sobbing grief, I didn’t.

Here are some bits from his poems. Please, do yourself a favor and read some of his poetry. Even if you rarely read poetry or never do, his are worth the time to at least read a few.

Poem VII from Twenty Love Poems and a 1 Song of Despair:

“Leaning into the afternoons I cast my sad nets
towards your oceanic eyes.

There in the highest blaze my solitude lengthens and flames,
its arms turning like a drowning man’s.

I send out red signals across your absent eyes
that move like the sea near a lighthouse.

You keep only darkness, my distant female,
from your regard sometimes the coast of dread emerges.

Leaning into the afternoons I fling my sad nets
to that sea that beats on your marine eyes.

The birds of night peck at the first stars
that flash my soul when I love you.

The night gallops on its shadowy mare
shedding blue tassels over the land.”

The following is from Sonnet II from 100 Love Sonnets

“But you and I, love, we are together
from our clothes down to our roots:
together in the autumn, in water, in hip, until
we can be alone together–only you, only me.

To think of the effort, that the current carried
so many stones, the delta of Boroa water;
to think that you and I, divided by trains and nations”

From Sonnet V:

“I did not hold your night, or your air, or the dawn:
only the earth, the truth of the fruit in clusters,
the apples that swell as they drink the sweet water,
the clay and the resins of your sweet-smelling land.

From Quinchamali where your eyes began
to the Frontera where your feet were made for me,
you are my dark familiar clay:
holding your hips, I hold the wheat in its fields again.

Woman from Arauco, maybe you didn’t know
how before I loved you I forgot your kisses.
But my heart went on, remembering your mouth–and I
went on

and on through the streets like a man wounded,
until I understood, Love: I had found
my place, a land of kisses and volcanoes.”

From Sonnet VII:

“That is why, when I heard your voice repeat
Come with me, it was as if you had let loose
the grief, the love, the fury of a cork-trapped wine

that geysers flooding from deep in its vault:
in my mouth I felt the taste of fire again,
of blood and carnations, of rock and scald.”

From Sonnet XI:

“I want to eat the sunbeam flaring in your lovely body,
the soevereign nose of your arrogant face,
I want to eat the fleeting shade of your lashes,”

From Sonnet XVI:

“Your hips were that much of the moon for me;
your deep mouth and its delights, that much sun;
your heart, fiery with its long red rays,”

From Sonnet XXIX:

“You come from poverty, from the houses of the South,
from the rugged landscapes of cold and of earthquake
that offered us–after those gods had tumbled
to their deaths–the lesson of life, shaped in the clay.

You are a little horse of black clay, a kiss
of dark mud, my love, a clay poppy,
dove of the twilight that flew along the roads,
piggy bank of tears from our poor childhood.

Little one, you’ve kept the heart of poverty in you,
your feet used to sharp rocks,
your mouth that didn’t always have bread, or sweets.

You come from the poor South, where my soul began;
in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes
with my mother. That’s why I chose you, companera.”

From Sonnet XXXVI:

“You with your sickle that lifts the perfumes,
you with the bossy soapsuds,
you climbing my crazy ladders and stairs,”

From Sonnet L:

“Because you are small as you are, let it
rip: let the meteor of your laughter
fly: electrify the natural names of things!”

From Sonnet LXXXIX:

“When I die, I want your hands on my eyes
I want the light and wheat of your beloved hands
to pass their freshness over me once more:
I want to feel the softness that changed my destiny.”

As you can see, most of the Sonnets I did not quote in their fullness, I just wanted to give some examples of why Neruda is a master. A sense of what has made him endure on 42 years beyond his death, and how his poetry is still relevant today to those that love, even the poems that are almost a 100 years old.

Let me know what you think! Next time we’ll talk about Neruda’s “other” stuff.

Clockers by Richard Price

The problem with being quasi aware of a book but not really aware is that you may form an opinion of it that has nothing to do with the book itself, a mistaken impression. I ran into this with Clockers by Richard Price. I remembered having heard about Clockers. I remembered that they’d made a movie based on it, and that it didn’t really interest me. I wasn’t real up on reading the book, but I did anyway…and realized that I was thinking of a different movie entirely.

Clockers, having nothing to do with the movie I remembered and wasn’t interested in, was actually pretty good.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for George Pelecanos)

Clockers primarily centers on two men. The first is a young drug dealer in a New Jersey ghetto, ‘Strike’ Dunham. The other is a burned out homicide detective called ‘Rocco’ Klein.

Strike is in a precarious position. He runs a crew that sells a large amount of cocaine in small increments on the corner of his housing project. His boss is pressuring him to get into even bigger things, with bigger responsibilities. He flies low, not flashing money everywhere or wasting it. Not sampling product. Still, he’s in the midst of the danger of the street corner, the danger of what his boss is asking him, the danger from both honest and crooked cops, and the danger from his boss overreaching the next boss up the chain. Most in his position don’t last long, but Strike is proud that he’s lasted at least nine months.

Strike hated having a gun, only got it because Rodney had told him he was too little and skinny to get anybody to toe the line on just say-so, that he had to have a piece to do the job. But the truth of it was, he was scared of the gun once he got it—not scared of shooting somebody, but scared of his own anger and what trouble he could get into for shooting somebody. His fear of having to use it probably served him just as well, sometimes even made him creative. One evening three months before, he had found out that some kid working for him was going over to Rydell and selling his bottles for fifteen instead of ten, then pocketing the extra five for himself. Not wanting to use the gun, Strike went over to a pet store, bought a dog chain and whipped this greedy little motherfucker to the ground in front of an entire Saturday night’s playground crowd, standing over him like some heave-chested slave master. It was just business, but Strike didn’t like to think about how good it felt, didn’t like to imagine where that might have ended for him if he’d had that gun in his hand.

Let’s not forget Rocco. Rocco is investigating a murder…the murder of a double-crossing drug dealer Strike’s boss ordered Strike to accomplish in order for strike to take his place. Strike didn’t do it, decided he wasn’t capable, but someone his straight edge brother knew did…and his brother confessed to doing the killing himself. Strike doesn’t really know what happened, only having some ideas. It’d be good if he figured it out, because Rocco certainly wants to find out.

After an hour of watching Mazilli threaten Maldonado with every cliché in the book, from thirty years of darkness to unspeakable sexual bondage, and after an hour of watching the kid respond with a heartrending performance of baffled and quivering innocence, Rocco had gotten bored and decided to cut short the whole damned passion play. He returned to the squad room for a one-on-one with Maldonado’s father and simply told him that unless his son gave up the gun in the next five minutes, the old man could kiss his bolide action goodbye. And in the time it took for Mazilli to smoke a cigarette out on the front steps, Rocco and Touhey sitting alongside him watching the sun go down behind the steel spider of the Majeski Skyway, Nelson Maldonado had changed his tune, decided to come clean and cough up the murder weapon. Rocco had no idea what the father used to threaten the kid that was actually worse than County, but in the end he didn’t really give a shit.

Things get complicated from there. Yes, that’s sarcasm…but truthful as well.

Clockers is gritty, complex, and intensely vivid. I’m not much for crime drama, but this is extremely well written crime drama. It may not exactly be my favorite book, but I’m definitely glad I didn’t stick with my original mistake and sat down to read it. It’s a heavy ride.