One Who Walked Alone – Robert E. Howard: The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis

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My very first impression of this book wasn’t too favorable: Novalyne Price starts off in a school-girlishly gushy manner (for example, she uses way more exclamation marks – seriously, and not humorously – than I can stomach without sarcastic remarks and irritated eye-rolls – “I met Bob Howard today! I’m so excited! Bob Howard is a real writer, and I met him, today!”), which made me wonder whether this was going to be 300 pages of fan-girling (which would have surprised me, knowing the friend who gifted me the book), but then the actual book started, Price cut down a bit on her exclamation mark usage, and even though I could never come to fully appreciate her style, the content more than made up for any possible stylistic deficiency or incompatibility, and soon I started to find this book thoroughly enjoyable, exhilarating, admirable, delightfully unruly and also heart-breaking.

And as I came to realize that there’s no way for me to write a coherent review, I decided to write one based on my random thoughts and feelings, separated by headings.

The blurb

I’d recommend skipping the sensationalist, trashy blurb altogether, because based on that, you might just think that this is a – well, a sensationalist and trashy memoir/biography, when in fact it’s anything but.

What is this made of?

The book mostly consists of the text of Price’s journals and diaries, from that roughly two-year period when she knew and dated Howard. I don’t know how heavily Price edited or revised her text, and how much she deleted from it when – more than 40 years later – she took her journals and turned them into this book, but in any case, the book still retains a lot of journal-like characteristics, which in itself is neither good nor bad. Price’s book is as intimate and vivid as any journal that is faithfully maintained by its author, but it’s also full of tiresome repetitions, flights of fancy and a certain monomania – it’s full of details which are probably very interesting for the author of the journal, but perhaps not so interesting for anyone else.

The “story”

In 1934, Novalyne Price gets a job as a teacher in Cross Plains, a small Texas town, where she soon manages to pick up Robert Howard. Price and Howard already knew each other briefly from earlier, and I’m not even sure what I mean here by “picking up”, because even though they go on to spend a lot of time together in the next several months, and even though Price sometimes thinks about Howard as a possible romantic interest, they just remains friends throughout their relationship – friends who spend their time driving up and down through the Texas countryside, reading books together, discussing writing, literature and the downfall of civilization, and also arguing a lot.

And even though in the beginning I briefly thought that perhaps Price is just a fan-girl, hanging on the words of Howard-the-Barbarian with fascination, I soon realized that she’s in fact a smart, determined, hard-willed, ambitious and self-confident young woman with a quirky sense of humor, who doesn’t give a damn about many of her environment’s conventions and expectations, while at the same time she’s an often clumsy, irritating, not-very-imaginative country girl who sometimes displays a frightful lack of empathy. In short – I realized that Novalyne Prize is a real human, a person with random moods, with good and bad moments and traits, with prejudices, biases, deeply held beliefs, with a lot of enthusiasm and lust for life, with all kinds of joys and sorrows. And though it’s possible to dislike her as a person, the real-ness of her own personal reality is indisputable.

What’s this about?

Theoretically, it’s about the last two years of Robert E. Howard, as witnessed by a close friend, but in reality, it’s much more about the friend herself. Yes, Novalyne Price wasn’t afraid to look closer and go closer to Howard, whom almost the whole town considered a lunatic, so it’s probable that she really got to know Howard better than anyone else. Still – Price’s main concern and interest was always her own life: she soon gave up the idea of getting into a closer, romantic relationship with Howard, she dated other men, too (and some of her journal entries concerning one of her regular dates, Truett, who was also Howard’s friend, really bring to mind the world of teenage-girl diaries), and she often got fully engrossed in her job and ignored everything else – therefore I sometimes felt that, after all, she probably didn’t see/understand Howard as well as she claims.

And about what else?

About so much more. The book contains the whole life of a small Texas town in the 1930s, and it’s is alive and vibrant with the whole era, environment and background – it’s just there, without any long descriptions, which is amazing; it’s also full of discussions about writing, literature and literary aspirations (and I’ll probably never again look down upon pulp writers paid by the word count, and definitely not on Howard); and (whenever Novalyne Price manages to put her ego aside) it’s also full of beautiful and sensitive descriptions about the things you cannot change, about all that’s fucking tragic in life, about the sense of living at the wrong time in the wrong place.

All in all, it’s a fascinating and nerve-racking book. (If Novalyne Price’s style didn’t get so much on my nerves as it did, it would be simply fascinating.)

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

girlinterruptedI liked this book with my mind because it’s written well and vividly, but it didn’t touch my feelings. All right: perhaps it touched them, but not too deeply. I think the reason for this is that I found Girl, Interrupted too fast and episodic (or I found myself too fast in my relation to this book, which is the same).

This is how fast it is: Susanna Kaysen is, at the age of 18, sent to a psychiatric hospital/crazy house/loony bin (choose one), where she then spends about a year and a half, makes friends with some of the other patients, experiences both life and death, sees both unexpected beauty and unexpected tragedies, until finally someone somewhere decides that this was enough, Kaysen is now ready to go back to the world. So be it, then.

Of course – I understand Kaysen’s main problems and doubts, I see the absurdity of life, and I can’t help but contemplate the arbitrary nature of the boundaries between sanity and insanity, especially when I read the description of borderline personality disorder (the illness Kaysen was diagnosed with, whose symptoms and description she copied her from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and I come to the conclusion that I might have BPD, too, only no one noticed it yet.

(I sometimes read the diagnostic criteria of mental disorders, and depending on my mood, I can easily diagnose myself as either suffering from either borderline, bipolar, or major depressive disorder, or something else entirely. And I’m not doubting the reality or the existence of mental disorders – I just want to say what Kaysen herself seems to express: that such diagnoses can be highly arbitrary, and also that a lot of things described in the DSM as symptoms of a disorder seem to me to be completely normal modes of human behavior and reactions to life [but of course it’s possible that I’m really not sane].)

End of parentheses.

So yes – I understand what Kaysen says, it’s only – again! as so often – that I don’t feel that anything’s at stake here. I miss the personal connection with Kaysen, and I don’t feel how and why Kaysen’s mind is in such a disordered shape.

Kaysen also mentioned her, so a comparison with Sylvia Plath was inevitable to me. Plath also used to be a patient in the ward where Kaysen was hospitalized, so now I recalled Plath’s The Bell Jar. And even years after my last re-reading, I could clearly recollect the deeply personal, burning, suffocating atmosphere of that novel, I could relive the feelings of how the protagonist just wanted to crouch in a quiet corner, I could remember the desperate urgency of her question: “how would a sane person behave now?” Compared to all this, I couldn’t feel much while reading Girl, Interrupted. Teenage angst, asshole boyfriends, general misery, and 50 aspirins down the throat? Yes, I believe it. But I don’t feel it.

I read and read, and tried to understand, and I felt like I should have been able to empathize better, but in the end, I really didn’t know just what the hell’s wrong with Susanna Kaysen.

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

freshComplaintI once wrote about one of Eugenides’ novels that he’s so good that I’d happily read even his shopping lists. It’s possible I’ll still feel this way about his novels (but there’ll probably be a ten-year gap between two novels again, so I’m not holding my breath), but based on just these short stories, I’m quite content without having access to Eugenides’ shopping list.

These stories are not bad, far from it.

They’re just…

First of all: Fresh Complaint?

When I first noticed, sometime last year, that this book was coming out, my first thought was: “Great! New short stories!” Well – they’re not new. There’s a couple of new(ish) stories here but most of them come from earlier stages of Eugenides’ career and it seems that most (or perhaps all) of them had already been published earlier. Sure, I don’t mind that they’re collected here, after all, I don’t have a subscription and access to 20 years’ worth of back issues of the New Yorker and other magazines, so for me it’s much simpler to read them in this collection, but still – they’re not new.

Also, these stories provide insight into the development of Eugenides’ themes throughout the years, and it’s interesting to see how certain characters and themes that were later developed into full-fledged novels originally started out in short story form. For example, the protagonist of one story is the very same Mitchell who’ll one day become one of the main characters in The Marriage Plot. And there’s another story that features a sexologist researching transgender issues – for a feature-length take on this theme, see Middlesex.

Yes, all this is interesting. Really. In a way. But I always get suspicious when I have to keep convincing myself that something is interesting, so let’s move on to my second concern with these stories.

Which is that I think Eugenides is a novelist, not a short story writer. I’m not saying that the longer the better, I happen to like his shortest novel the best, but Eugenides is definitely not a master of spare, succinct, bare-boned storytelling – he’s not one to create a whole world in ten pages. I feel that in his case, it’s much better when he wanders through decades and continents, and goes deep into everything, and to me it doesn’t even matter whether he’s going deep into the habits and aspirations of an idealist arts student; or into the mind of a young man who suffers from bipolar disorder; or into an inexplicably melancholy atmosphere through 250 pages – the result is always much better, more beautiful, more intimate than what he achieves in a 15-page story, where there’s only enough space to lay down the facts but no time to get into the feelings.

Reading these stories, I often felt that Eugenides didn’t go close enough, deep enough. These stories are not heartless, shabbily put together, worthless or dull – but there’s a great distance-keeping and impersonal quality to them. They’re like the echoes of stories I had heard before – distant, quiet, lacking real power. And unlike his novels, I don’t think I’ll remember his stories for long.

10:04 by Ben Lerner

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Ben Lerner’s novel is on the boundary between amazingly smart and irritatingly smart-ass, and it’s sometimes both at the same time.

This fits this meta-novel admirably because – as the narrator also claims – 10:04 plays with the boundaries of reality and fiction not in the usual postmodern way – rather, it shimmers between reality and fiction, and sometimes it feels as if it were simultaneously both. (And of course, it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what’s fictitious. But it doesn’t matter – while reading this novel, it really does not.)

The motto of the novel – which also comes up multiple times in the text – is that there might exist a future or a parallel reality that is exactly like the current one, except that it’s completely different. A reality or future where nothing has changed visibly but nothing is the same, either. The narrator-protagonist of the novel (Ben Lerner, in a more or less fictitious – and it’s irrelevant how fictitious – version) explores these alternative realities.

The story takes place roughly at the time when Lerner’s writing this very novel (the novel also includes the story of its own inception), and it’s set in an almost-real reality where a possibly approaching apocalypse seems to loom over everything. At the beginning of the story, Lerner learns that he suffers from a possibly fatal heart condition (this is, again, something invisible from the outside but life-changing from the inside). At the same time, his best female friend decides that she wants a child and approaches Lerner with the idea that he should provide his sperm for this purpose (what will that parallel reality be like where Lerner’s a father? will he really become a father or will he just be a sperm donor? how much does he want the be a father, anyway?). While all this is going on, Lerner leads his usual life as a writer (yes, he writes, this novel, for example, meets people, and also goes to museums and cultural events – and everything affects him and his writing). And of course, it’s not clear whether these things happen to the real Lerner or to his narrator.

Besides all this, the novel is full of philosophical wanderings and short essays about a whole array of topics (how the experience we derive from a work of art is influenced by the circumstances in which we consume an art work; why Lerner wanted to become a poet; how individuals and societies come to terms with dramatic and traumatic events, be they either personal or national tragedies; how we can lead an ethical life; who decides what art is; and so on) and it also contains lots of sometimes morbid, sometimes life-changing episodes, told in an offhand manner, which show how even in real life we’re constantly fluctuating between reality and fiction, and how most things we build our lives on are based solely on an agreement on what to believe – and how, because of this, all of our most basic premises about our life are ultimately fragile and vulnerable.

Just one example: there’s an episode about a woman who built her identity and sense of self around the cultural heritage of her father, who was of Arabic origin. After her father’s death, she learns that she’s in fact a child from her mother’s earlier relationship, and she’s a white American. Consequently, she loses the ground from beneath her feet and she’s not sure anymore who she is. Of course, she can continue to work on preserving her Arabic heritage but it won’t be the same anymore – and indeed, how could it be the same.

This novel is like this – a floating, vibrating, strange text, smart and smart-assy, unfinished and unfinishable, full of indecision and concerns, but it’s still slightly optimistic, which is something I especially like.

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

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This is another good young adult novel, so I’m happy. Except that I was mostly crying while I was reading it.

The main characters of the story are both outsiders, struggling with all kinds of traumas and difficulties. Violet, despite being popular in high school, turns completely inward after a family tragedy, and she stops caring about being a cheerleader, having a relationship with the coolest kid in the school, or keeping up her old friendships with the girls with whom – now it seems – she never had anything common in the first place.

Then there’s Theodore Finch, an unpredictable goth-like guy, who’s considered to be a total weirdo, and who’s constantly thinking about death even though he loves being alive.

Violet and Theodore meet accidentally, fall in love with, and – as it’s supposed to be in real love – they both show the other how the world can be different, or that even if it cannot be different, you can at least look at it in a different way.

Luckily, Jennifer Niven is a realist, so she doesn’t pretend that love has a magic power. For instance, love is not enough to cure mental illnesses, and love is not enough to make one forget about their tragic losses, and even though it’s awesome to have someone to love, being neglected at home or bullied in school will still hurt.

And yes – I like young adult novels that can be taken seriously, that deal not only with sunny topics, and that don’t promise easy solutions.
And perhaps I’ll look up Niven’s adult books one day, too. I was surprised to learn that this was her first foray into the young adult genre.

Youth in Revolt by C. D. Payne

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I have a theory explaining why extremely intelligent, precocious teenagers in possession of an intimidatingly rich vocabulary are so over-represented in coming-of-age novels. The reason, perhaps, is that the authors of such novels – in most cases not teenagers themselves – probably have no idea how teenagers talk in real life. However, by claiming that their characters are extremely intelligent (and so on), they provide an explanation for the strange phenomenon that the supposedly teenage characters use such complicated sentence structures and employ such exotic vocabulary that would put high-ranking members of the English aristocracy to shame.

And perhaps just as importantly: this can be a rich source of humor – using extremely sophisticated language is rather comic when the teenagers in question only ever discuss and describe a single, very mundane topic: sex.

Nick Twisp here doesn’t care about anything else, either – his main goal is to get to fourth base with the fantastic teenage goddess, Sheeni, but it would be a mistake to think that reading 500 pages about how a pimply, sex-crazed 14-year-old wants to finally lose his virginity is a boring ride. It’s anything but – C. D. Payne is a writer with incredible comic talents, and he takes all the possible miseries of a teenager’s life (the overactive hormones, mostly, but also the problems of a completely screwed up family, school difficulties, and so on) and goes on to write about them in a wonderfully absurd, morbid, insanely funny way.

Youth in Revolt is definitely not a melancholic coming-of-age novel, tackling the hard questions and doubts around human existence. And of course, why would anyone ever need to feel sad or hopeless? According to Nick, there’s certainly no reason to feel that way, ever. As he puts it: “Consider, if you will, the morning boner. What a metaphor of hope and renewal! How can anyone give way to despair when one’s groin greets each new day with such a gala spectacle of physiological optimism?”

By the way, if I stopped to think about all the horrors presented in this novel (various cases of sexual abuse and harassment; parents completely devoid of parenting abilities; deviant behavior patterns; leaving a horde of teens to their own devices; and so on), I’d probably consider slitting my wrists. Fortunately, this is not a novel where you have to seriously think about all this, or where you have to lament over the possible fate of hopeless and deviant modern youth. The youth depicted here manages just fine, and I’m having an awful lot of fun.

(The quote on the cover claims that this is the funniest book you’ll read this year. It’s certainly the funniest I’ve read so far, and I can’t imagine that anything will surpass it in the remaining few weeks of the year.)

The Best American Short Stories 2017 by Meg Wolitzer (ed.)

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I could easily cut and paste this text from the posts I wrote about the anthologies of the previous years but I’m too lazy to go back to my earlier posts. Still, this is probably going to be very similar to those because – as I came to realize since 2011, when I first started to read this series – this anthology is basically the same every single year.

The ingredients include:

– 1 story written in the second person singular (whether or not the second person singular makes sense there)
– 2-3 somewhat historical, somewhat political stories
– 1-1 story written by a black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American writer or about black, Asian American, Latin American or Native American characters (in a single year, only two out of the four minorities must make an appearance, but sometimes as many as three are included)
– 2 lyrical, experimental short stories (in which sometimes no meaning whatsoever can be found)
– 3-4 stories by well-established, successful author (it’s a well-known fact that in the whole wide country of the United States, only about 20 persons can write decent short stories, so there’s obviously not a whole lot of possibilities to choose from)
– 1-2 stories by writers who never before had anything published
– 4-5 stories about family matters, turning points in relationships, and crises of self-realization (that is: normal, average human stuff; and I usually like these stories)

Of course, one story can possibly fit into more categories. It’s possible for an Asian American writer who never had anything published before to write something experimental, or a well-established author may write something historical in the second person singular. Therefore, the collection is not that boring and predictable, and the quality of the stories is usually very high – the writers featured here can indeed write stories that are really stories and not political, philosophical, existentialist or feminist treaties, even when the topic is political, philosophical and so on.

But it’s not that thrilling and surprising, either, after several years (and I wouldn’t call myself a jaded reader who cannot be pleased anymore), even though this year’s guest editor, Meg Wolitzer says in her introduction that she likes being surprised by a story (I like that, too), and that she thinks these here are surprising stories (I don’t think so).

As roughly 19 out of the 20 stories fall into one or more of the categories outlined above, there’s not much space left for the truly surprising, and I rarely cried out in my mind that “oh wow, this here’s so exquisite and precise and beautiful, and I’ve never seen it expressed like this before, and how is it even possible for someone to write in such an awesome way”. This year no single story made me feel like this on the whole. I felt it sometimes, coming across certain sentences or even paragraphs, and that pleased me, sure (and then I tried to examine why those sentences and paragraphs were so good, but fortunately this mostly resists scientific examinations), but this is not enough. I want the complete story to enchant me. Perhaps next year.

It by Stephen King

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It’s a mystery how we ever manage to grow up (and I don’t know whether we actually do manage to). While reading this novel, I thought and remembered a lot of things about growing up (my own growing up, things I thought I’d forgotten, but now they came back, but I’ll forget them again), about being a loser, and about all the shit even the most average kid (who doesn’t live in a horror novel) goes through before becoming an adult – and I was truly amazed how we can ever live long enough to become adults.

I, for example, wasn’t a conspicuous loser and I wasn’t bullied, but I got a hunch that I was saved from this only because I had pretty developed instincts of self-preservation, so I carefully guarded my vulnerability, and didn’t make it public knowledge when, say, in my early teens I had a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio or on the cute guy from the other class. I had a classmate, though, who was naïve and honest enough not to hide her crush on one of the Backstreet Boys guys, and she got picked on by the cool kids quite badly. After a while she was bullied not only because of her Backstreet Boys weakness, but for everything and anything, and this still hurts her. Which is no wonder – being a loser isn’t particularly awesome, especially when you’re a loser on your own.

Not many writers can feel and describe this so well as Stephen King, who deals with losers in a disproportionate amount of his books, losers who must bravely face various horrors, not because they’re so adventurous – just because that’s how life is. The horror can be the simple terribleness of everyday life, and it can also be the crazy bloody gut-slicing gruesome stuff of horror movies, but the distinction doesn’t matter that much because the horror is always brought on and created by someone’s imagination – which, of course, doesn’t mean that it is not real.

There’s certainly a lot of gory stuff here, sure, but my imagination is probably not what it used to be, it’s the pragmatic imagination of an adult, so I can’t really get scared of Things living in the gutters and of cities where Evil lives. On the other hand, I can get extremely scared of the average horrors of average lives – of people not paying attention, withholding their love, not giving a shit, being deliberate assholes, being violent – and King is very good at depicting these kinds of horrors. (I’d say he’s better at it than depicting the gory kind.) And he’s also good at depicting and evoking emotions – this didn’t surprise me; I often feel deep distress and sadness when reading his books, but I think this was the first time he even made me cry. A lot.

My favorite part, by the way, is when one of the characters, Bill, who later becomes a writer, goes off on a rant during one of his university literature classes about why the hell it’s necessary for a story to be deliberately politically, culturally and socially relevant, since a story, if it’s a good one, will be full of political, cultural and social relevance anyway, automatically, and there’s no need to force all that stuff into it. I don’t know if King follows his (character’s) philosophy deliberately, but his books are like this. There’s so much in them, especially in such a long one as this, that I won’t even start discussing it here, but I guess I learned more about contemporary American ways and reality from King than from all my university courses on the subject. So yeah, his books are full of relevance. And still – his books are stories. And I read for stories.