The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens

The banners on this blog show my various bookshelves, and one of them contains the book The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens. I bought it at last year’s Twin Cities Book Festival, and actually met the author and had him sign my copy.  I was looking for new mysteries, possibly for my Mystery Book Club.  Eskens was very unassuming, approachable, and taking some flak for his quiet demeanor from a fellow mystery writer who was hawking her wares like a pro.  

  
I finally read it, and it was a page-turner.  I finished it off in two days, and it was, in a word, transporting.  It’s one of those books that makes you forget what’s going on around you.  There are two story lines, one in the past, and one in the present, and each is fraught with injustice, misunderstandings, and most importantly, characters you want to win against life’s crazy odds.

Joe, a college student, is trying to complete an assignment for his English class.  Sounds simple enough.  He has to find a stranger and interview that person and write their biography in brief.  His idea is to find someone at a nursing home to talk to, but the person he ends up meeting is not at all what he bargained for.  Carl Iverson is a convicted murderer who’s been in jail for thiry years, but has just been released to the nursing home because he’s dying of cancer. 

But Joe is committed to finishing the assignment.  It took all he had just to leave home and start college. And his mother keeps calling, needing him.  She’s an alcoholic and Joe’s been the parent of the household for a long time, putting his own life on hold.  Then his mother calls from jail, and Joe has no choice but to go back home, not for his mother, but to take care of his older brother Jeremy, who is autistic.  

Jeremy is a sweet kid, and Joe is stunned when Lila, the girl in the apartment next to his, who he’s been trying to chat up for weeks, warms up to Jeremy immediately. After Joe convinces Lila to come to dinner with him and Jeremy, she finds out about the interview and clashes with Joe over the idea. The argument ultimately causes the two of them to investigate the murder further, partly because Carl isn’t talking about it.   Joe doesn’t mind, as it’s more time he gets to spend with Lila, but it’s suddenly a lot to juggle–taking care of his brother, attending college, working a part-time job, trying to keep away from his toxic mother, and maybe having a girlfriend. 

Eskens’ writing is solid, and there were several passages that had me on the edge on my seat.  At one point, Joe upsets some people who don’t want him investigating Carl’s history, and he’s attacked and then stranded in the woods in a Minnesota snowstorm. How he survives is brilliant fun, a cross between one of writer Gary Paulsen’s wilderness survival tales for kids and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne.

The Life We Bury is a fabulous debut for Eskens. The characters are flawed and likeable, the setting is a beautiful, unpredictable character of its own–Minnesota in winter–and the action builds to a nail-biting crescendo.  Mystery/thriller readers will love it, but I suspect it will gain a wider audience.  Joe is just trying to break away from his family and figure out how to be his own person, and who can’t relate to that?

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Darwin for Kids

One Beetle Too Many, by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Matthew Trueman, is a fabulous introduction to Charles Darwin for children.  Published by Candlewick, known for putting out gorgeous all-ages picture books, this is evidently one of about a dozen Candlewick Biographies, “Portraits of People Making History and Shaping the Future,” and I will definitely be checking out other books in the series.

   
Beetle is a relatively short chapter book at forty-three pages, yet each chapter distinguishes itself with the kind of detail a child delights in, like the fact that one time Darwin ran out of places to hold the beetles he was collecting, so he popped one in his mouth! The book is loaded with richly colored, detailed illustrations that reward close study and feel like an integral part of the story. With titles like “Butterflies and Gauchos” and “Seashells on Mountaintops,” each chapter is its own adventure, propelling the reader along further.

As a homeschooler, I couldn’t help but be delighted to learn that Darwin was a rotten student and hated school.  He was an excellent observer, and had his own methods of study that didn’t fit with the education his father tried to force on him. Lasky shows how important Darwin’s early curiosity was in his development as a scientist, and describes how difficult it was for Darwin to put his ideas about evolution out into the world, which felt like an important facet of his life to share with children, that sometimes the most important ideas you have can give you a stomachache, and that’s okay.  Highly recommended.

Podcasts and Bookmarks

  
Today I spent most of the day finishing making about seventy-five (physical) bookmarks I’m intending to sell at the Friends of the Nokomis Library book sale next weekend, to raise money for my very deserving library.  I used pages from a falling-apart copy of The Hobbit to cover one side, and the other side is some doodly art I had previously created.  Then I have scads of artsy yarn that is shit to knit with but looks really great in other arty projects like this! I was going to color all the bookmarks on the doodly side, until I colored about three and realized that it would take me about a year.  Then i realized that i should  leave them uncolored because, duh, adult coloring books, a thing now, so let the people color their own bookmarks!

While i was working I was listening to episode after episode of one of Book Riot’s fab podcasts.  I just discovered this one, it’s called Reading Lives, hosted by Jeff O’Neal, and it’s an interview format where he talks to one person for the whole hour, all about how they developed as a reader, who/what books were their influences, seminal reading moments, etc.  It’s heaven for reading junkies like me.  And you! Check it out.

Summer Book Bingo 2015

There are many ways to create a reading project, but this has to be one of the most creative: Books on the Nightstand’s Book Bingo! Go to the link and read about it, then get your own card.  Here’s mine:

  
It runs from today (Memorial Day) until September 7th, Labor Day.  I’m thinking I’ll go for the first column, because I was just thinking about rereading The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a great children’s chapter book. Or maybe the bottom row, because I just picked up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, which is about a girl raised with a chimpanzee, so that would cover two squares. I’m trying not to cheat and use books I’ve already read or already started before today.  If you get stuck BOTNS has set up a Good Reads thing for people to make suggestions of books that fit different categories. Anyhoo, just a fun reading project for the summer to challenge yourself.  

Memorial Day 2015

I have very mixed feelings about this so-called holiday.  On the one hand, great, my husband gets a day off from work.  On the other hand, why? To remember people who served our country, maybe not just the ones who didn’t come back, but how about the ones who have come back and been permanently damaged, physically, psychologically, or both? My father served in Korea as a Marine and he  never, ever talked about it when I was growing up, only at the very end of his life.  I was a snot as a teenager, like all teenagers I suppose, thought I knew it all and that the military was just plain stupid.  How simple that was.

Anyway, I have renewed respect for people who have fought in wars, for whatever reason. I don’t judge them. So, enough already with the politics, right? Why am I going on about this on my book blog, you are wondering? Well, it so happens that I listened to a very good podcast yesterday about military fantasy/sci-fi, on one of my favorite shows, The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Episode #143. There is a great panel that discusses writers of this subgenre, and how some writers get the whole “grunt” experience right and others don’t.  I found myself interested in this discussion,  about the stories that are not about the leaders of the war.

    

Two series mentioned that I’m currently looking into are Weston Ochse’s Seal Team 666, about a very special ops team who fight supernatural beings, and Glen Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, about a band of mercenaries. I was especially interested to hear that Cook, who used to be in the Navy, wrote an essay about PTSD that doctors use now to better understand how to help returning soldiers.  In other words, he’s got cred.

Anyhow, if any of you have read these series I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m pretty new to this subgenre.

They Still Write Westerns?

Yeah, evidently they do.  And I just read a really good one. I would never have picked up a western on my own, but Gav, Simon, Kate and Rob of Hear…Read This recommended it pretty highly (episode 17 if you want to hear their discussion), and so I gave it a whirl.  

  
The Thicket, by Joe Lansdale, starts with a bang, but not from gunfire.  Jack, the teenaged narrator, and his younger sister Lula, have just watched both their parents die from a grisly pox. Most of the town is dead from it as well. Their grandfather packs up the three of them, some mules and a wagon, to leave west Texas for an obscure aunt in Kansas.  They come to a river where there used to be a bridge, but some enterprising bastard has burnt it down in favor of making folks pay him for a ferry ride across.  

As Grandpa is trying unsucessfully to haggle a price on the ferry ride, three stange men show up for a ride as well, and their tense ride across the river together had me holding my breath. Both humans and Mother Nature contribute to the swirl of violence that ensues, leaving Grandpa shot dead,  Jack almost drowned, and Lula on the wrong side of the river, kidnapped by the less-than-savory men. And that’s just chapter one!

Jack’s only concern now is getting back his sister, but first he has to find help.  This is by no means a straighforward process, and he finally ends up with a sharp-shooting, philosophical dwarf, the son of a slave who can’t hold his liquor, and a smelly, angry hog.  So, forget Kansas, this is a different journey, full of mean, sometimes stupid men, fallen women, and a whole lot of killing. 

Every time I look at the author photo in the dust jacket, I freak out, because Joe Lansdale looks like a quiet, uncommunicative Norwegian, yet his Western style of writing uses more than a bit of cheek to create very straightforward descriptions. For example, Jack describes his grandfather’s frugality thus: “Daddy always said Grandpa was so tight that when he blinked the skin on his pecker rolled back.” Some of the dialogue is downright hilarious in its ridiculousness.  Here’s a typical exchange, when Jack’s party is questioning an injured boy they find on the trail:

     “Let him tell it,” Shorty said.
     “I done told it,” the colored boy said. “I was riding in the back of the wagon with the goods. Mr. Druskin and his dog, Butch, was in the buck seat driving the mules. I mean Mr. Druskin. The dog didn’t know how.”
     “That’s disappointing,” Jimmie Sue said.
     “Yeah,” Spot said. “I would have liked that. A dog driving a wagon.”
     “Would you two shut up?” Shorty said.

There are also passages of great beauty, like this moment when Jack is falling asleep, wishing things had gone differently crossing that river: “I remembered that mule flying over me, and somehow, the way I saw it in my troubled head, I was on that mule’s back, and it had wings, and my sister was sitting behind me, her arms around my waist, and we were flying rapidly up and away, into a sky blue as a Swede’s eye.”

What makes the violence in the story bearable is that we the readers are inhabiting the experience through Jack, who is a good kid.  Of course he changes as a result of his experiences, but he changes his companions as well.  They are better off for knowing each other.

This was a really enjoyable book to read.  It’s what the John Ford movie The Searchers should have been, for me.  I hate that movie.  It’s gorgeous, and the story is similar, in that some bad men kill a family and steal the daughter, so the plot is about the journey to find her and rescue her.  Only, in the the film, the bad guys are Native Americans, and John Wayne’s character keeps telling the other guy (her brother?) how she won’t be pure anymore, she’ll be tainted, like it’s her fault.  He despises her almost more than the men who took her.  It’s despicable on soooo many levels.  The Thicket was a fabulous antidote. I might even read another Western after this. So suck it, John Ford!

If You Could Go Back and Fix It

I just finished the graphic novel Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley for my Graphic Novel Book Club. Then I found out that O’Malley is the creator of Scott Pilgrim, which I’ve never read but even I, relatively ignorant of the stars of the graphic noveldom, know of Scott Pilgrim and O’Malley’s success with said Pilgrim. So maybe now I’ll read that.  I’m kind of glad we didn’t read Pilgrim because there would have been too much expectation.  But I took Seconds at face value on its own and really enjoyed it.  

  

The title Seconds refers to second chances, as in you messed things up, but you get a chance to go back and fix your mistakes.  The title also refers to the name of the main character’s restaurant, as in the food is so good you want seconds.  Clever, no? And the drawings of the food do look delectable, even when I can’t tell exactly what they are. 

The story is ostensibly about chef Katie leaving Seconds and starting a new restaurant where she will be chef and own the place. She’s been saving up for this for years, living in a hovel above Seconds, and now the building she bought for the new restaurant is turning into a money pit.  Should she have picked a different location, one in better shape that she wasn’t so passionate about but would have been less risky?

All she can do now is wait, and so she’s hanging around Seconds when there’s an accident and a server gets injured, basically because of Katie’s disruptive presence. Enter the second chance, involving a house spirit and some magic mushrooms.  When Katie wakes up the next morning, she relives the moments before the accident and makes a different choice so that it doesn’t happen.  That’s “Revision #1.” As you might expect, something else happens that she wants to fix, and she starts to get greedy, fixing so many things so many times that she can hardly keep track of what version of her life she’s living. She even argues with the narrator at times, revising her version of events as well. 

I love the exploration of this idea of being able to go back and make a different choice, something we’ve probably all wanted the power to do at least once in our lives.  Of course, there are consequences, and O’Malley has fun creating an abstract visual representation of the universe being out of balance.  

I’m pleased to say Seconds passes the Bechdel test: There is an ex-boyfriend and a couple of love interests, but the female characters are interesting and have intelligent conversations that have nothing to do with men! Plus, they don’t have Barbie bodies. They actually have individual shapes.  

I really enjoyed the drawing style as well as the story.  O’Malley gives us a map of Seconds, showing everything from the prep kitchen to someone messing with their cel phone while sitting on the toilet in the bathroom. I love maps. He also has a great variety of page layouts, some with only a few panels, and some with as many as fifteen when there’s lots going on, but they’re never confusing.  It’s easy to follow the flow of the panels.  

I suspect O’Malley is an expert storyteller, making it look easy,  and that the more I read graphic novels, the more I will go back to O’Malley to see exactly what he does to make it so good.