King Dork by Frank Portman. Full disclosure: I didn’t realize King Dork was a “young adult” book until after I read it. But that does explain why I wasn’t able to find it in the regular fiction section of the bookstore. But don’t let its classification dissuade you from reading this charming, witty, enjoyable novel — one of the best coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read. The author, Frank Portman, is better known as “Dr. Frank” of the band “The Mr. T Experience.” If you’re familiar with any of that band’s work — catchy, funny tunes like “Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend” and “Who Needs Happiness (I’d Rather Have You)” — you’ll have some idea of what to expect from the book King Dork. In fact, the novel sprung from an MTX song by the same name: “I’m King Dork and I want you to be my Queen.” The book’s King Dork is Tom Henderson, an Everykid struggling to stay under the radar in high school, constantly put-upon by bullies (students and teachers) and the rest of the “psychotic normal people.” (I have seen the “make-out fake-out” in action, so the hell of high school is rendered accurately.) His escape is to talk about rock-and-roll and think up great band names with his only friend, Sam Hellerman (they were thrust together alphabetically; such is fate).
The plot really starts moving when Tom discovers some books that used to belong to his late father, including Catcher in the Rye, and uses them to get to know his dad better. Tom turns cryptic notes in the books into a mystery that carries the story along. At the same time, he’s slowly learning some social graces and having his first success with the opposite sex. Meanwhile, Portman gives us frequent discursions on rock music and high school culture that are hilarious and spot-on, as are his characterizations of minor characters, such as clueless teachers who mispronounce vocabulary words and Tom’s well-meaning but inept aging hippie stepfather. So: Will Tom get a girlfriend? Will Tom and Sam ever write any actual songs, or just debate band names? Is Sam as brilliant as Tom thinks he is? Will Tom ever live down the nickname “ChiMo”? And will Tom ever figure out what happened to his dad? Most of these questions are answered! I like the ending, which is ambiguous but not disappointing, and appropriate for a coming-of-age, where the endpoint is often not clarity but perspective.
A note on format: The paper version might be preferable for things like lists and codes (especially) and song lyrics. But I enjoyed the cd version. It includes an enjoyable interview with Portman (which is where I first learned about the “YA” classification) and several songs related to the book. You can hear some of these songs at this link. The hardcover has been out long enough that you can probably get a used copy for less than the paperback which will presumably come in the spring. But however you experience it, I highly recommend King Dork. Bonus recommendation if you like King Dork (and “Freaks & Geeks” is a given): Tom Perotta’s The Wishbones, about a wedding band musician who faces the scary prospect of growing up. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)
Sunday Money by Jeff MacGregor. This one had been on my “maybe” list for a while, based on some good reviews. I finally picked it up a few months ago and read it in pieces over the summer and fall, often while a Sunday NASCAR race was droning in the background. So what is Sunday Money all about? Well, you know how the legend goes that the movie Speed was pitched as “Die Hard on a bus”? I wonder if somebody pitched this one as “A Walk in the Woods goes racin’!” Sports Illustrated writer Jeff MacGregor and his photographer wife buy a motor home and spend about ten months following the NASCAR circuit around the country. While the sport used to be a largely casual southeastern phenomenon, it’s now a multi-billion dollar coast-to-coast business. And that business is selling a product just as carefully packaged and skillfully marketed as the detergents and auto parts and breakfast cereals advertised on the cars themselves. MacGregor does a pretty good job relating the history of stock car racing and blending it with tons of vignettes from the parking lots, infields, and garages. I think the book falters a bit when it tries to delve into the philosophical divide between the old-school NASCAR fans (and drivers) who liked the insularity and laid-back good ole boy style of the past versus the new school of savvy media-friendly drivers, along with tv and ticket sales moving the sport from old tracks like Rockingham to new tracks like Las Vegas. (An aside: Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the living embodiment of this divide within the soul of NASCAR, and his ability to bridge that gap, and offer something for everyone, will have a lot to do with the continued success of the sport. But no pressure or anything, Little E.)
Anyway, I think that faltering is part of a larger fault with Sunday Money. For the novice, it’s a nice intro the sport, its characters, and its culture. So I do recommend it for someone who for some reason is just getting interested in NASCAR. But for anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the sport, it’s just going to tell you a bunch of stuff you already know. True, there are a lot of funny stories, but I don’t think they’re enough to justify buying the book. Plus, the travelogue method seems to be little more than filler, something to tie the episodes together. That’s because we don’t get a lot of local color (there are a few exceptions, such as Daytona and Concord, North Carolina) — the motor home parking lots, garages, and tracks seem largely interchangeable. I’m sure that’s due to the fact that MacGregor had to spend so much time driving to and from the tracks, and didn’t tow a car for excursions away from these Gasoline Alley Woodstocks. It’s like a tale of a rock band on the road — the arenas are all the same and the only view you get of the cities is from the hotel or tour bus window. Still, I’d recommend Sunday Money for someone who wants to get an idea of why 150,000 people gather every weekend to watch cars go in circles, and for the NASCAR completist. And, I think it’s probably a safe bet that Sunday Money is the best NASCAR book there is (even if there’s not much competition). So, it may be worth reading like a magazine — skimming for the good stories, skipping the old news — laying on the couch while the race is on the tv. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)
The Ruins by Scott Smith. I was really looking forward to The Ruins. I devoured Smith’s only previous novel, A Simple Plan (way better than the movie, which wasn’t bad). Based on that experience, and rave reviews from the likes of Stephen King, I bought The Ruins as soon as it was out. And while I liked The Ruins, it would be hard for any book to live up to the expectations I put on it. The basics: a group of tourists in Mexico leave the resorts based on a sketchy rumor of the adventures that can be had at nearby ruins. Naturally, once they arrive, bad things happen. I don’t want to give too much away, and one criticism I’m sure many will have is that there’s really only one plot point that a reviewer can give away. To put it negatively, the protagonists encounter something bad and try to survive, and that’s it. But what I found gripping was Smith’s evocative description of the suffocating atmosphere in the jungle and at the ruins, and especially his exploration into the fragile psyches of the characters. The Ruins isn’t a murder-a-minute thriller. It’s almost a philosophical inquiry into how people react differently in life-or-death situations. Like King’s review, I don’t want to make The Ruins sound like Heart of Darkness, but I’d recommend it if you’re looking for a smart read that will keep you up nights and cling to you after you’re done. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)
Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. The Ruins stuck with me enough that it led me to read Deep Survival. The latter is more of an academic and psychological discussion about survival. When things go wrong, why do some people live and some people die? Gonzales doesn’t skimp on the survival stories, either, giving us tales from mountaintops and underwater and the deck of an aircraft carrier. It’s no surprise that panic is the primary killer in survival situations. But how do those who survive overcome panic? Gonzales’s thesis is that the survivor adapts, trains the mind to overrule the body, and refuses to rely on the old map when the landmarks change. Some examples may give you an idea of what I mean. It seems that some people, when scuba diving, for some reason remove their breathing apparatuses…and often die as a result. The consensus is that having one’s mouth and nose covered triggers an emotional reaction — panic and removing the “obstruction.” Of course, 99% of the time, this is the proper action for survival. The problem is that scuba diving is that other 1%, when removing the obstruction is deadly. So to survive, the scuba diver has to train the brain to overcome the panic — the body’s shorthand survival technique, based on past experience.
It’s similar to the pilots who crash-land on aircraft carriers when the alarms tell them to wave off and go around for another shot — every bit of their training tells them the safe place is on the ground, and it’s very, very hard to force your rational brain to override the emotional brain’s instinctive response. There’s a lot more along these lines in Deep Survival, with references for further reading, both on the psychology and on survival techniques. I think it did give me some insight into the way the characters in The Ruins behaved — the ones who sat around and waited to be rescued, the ones who panicked, the ones who didn’t act rationally, and the ones who took action and tried to survive. If you enjoy watching Discovery Channel shows like “Survivorman,” you’ll definitely want to read Deep Survival. It’s like “Survivorman” plus “Non-Survivorman.” I recommend it, although it might make you want to take a wilderness survival course before the next time you go outside. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. Sharp Objects is more of a traditional mystery/thriller/whodunit. But it’s a lot better than the dreck most of your in-flight plane-mates will be reading. The quickie review (appropriate for author Flynn, tv reviewer for Entertainment Weekly): Camille Preaker, a reporter for a middling Chicago paper, goes to report on a lurid series of murders in her small home town, where she has to deal with the dark secrets of her own past. It’s pretty good for a first novel — a quick read, some red herrings, and a satisfying twist ending. And while so many of these types of novels are police procedurals, it’s nice to see a reporter doing the legwork and parrying with the police. Admittedly, there are some cliches in here. But that’s probably true of any book in this hearty genre. It may be overdoing it to say that Sharp Objects is “Quentin Tarantino goes to Mayberry” (for starters, not quite gory enough for QT and no one as noble as Sheriff Taylor), but I feel comfortable comparing it to the lesser works in the Stephen King oeuvre. The negative reviews focus on the mystery element, and it’s true that Sharp Objects isn’t a breakneck chase for a killer that ends in a final showdown. It’s quieter and subtler and deals with a more universal and insidious menace. It’s not perfect, but I did enjoy it, and it did give me a shiver. I’d especially recommend it for mystery lovers with mother or sister issues, as I think they’d be particularly likely to identify with Camille. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)
The Keep by Jennifer Egan. I wasn’t planning on another paired review, like The Ruins and Deep Survival, but The Keep seems to fit well with Sharp Objects. To be clear, The Keep is much better — Egan is a very gifted writer. But some of the themes are similar. I don’t want to give away too much here, either, but I’ll give you the bare bones. The Keep starts out as the story of two cousins. One, Howie, is kind of an oddball, fat and hapless and often left behind by his other cousins at the family gatherings. Cousin Danny is more of a follower, a classic Number Two man who goes along when the older cousins pull pranks on Howie. A tragic event in their youth shatters Howie, and he and Danny drift apart. Years later, Howie has grown up to be rich and handsome Howard, and Danny is an aging hipster scraping by in New York. Out of the blue, Howard calls Danny and invites him to help refurbish a castle in Europe that Howard is turning into a hotel. Danny jumps at this thin reed, but finds himself just as unsettled and uncomfortable as he was in America. Strange things are afoot at the castle, not least of which is the presence of the elderly surviving member of the family that owned the castle for centuries. She’s holed up in the keep and Howard can’t get her out. In the midst of this engaging story, we’re introduced to Ray, a prisoner who narrates his own tale. The way Egan intertwines these stories is stunning and magnificent.
The keep is “the heart of the castle,” and it’s symbolic of the secrets we lock away in our own hearts. Here, the characters all seem to have troubling past events that have made them who they are, but they’re locked away where no one can get at them. That’s also present in Sharp Objects, where the characters harbor creepy mysteries. Another similar theme is that no one can hurt us as badly as our families can. And a final reason I like reviewing these book together is that both discuss the power of words. In Sharp Objects, [mild spoiler alert] Camille has a history of self-mutiliation. She carved words into her skin and in that way was able to exert some ownership over them. [end spoilers] In The Keep, Ray keeps a journal in which he writes words that stick in his brain. They’re often slang — and it’s a nice touch to note that prisoners’ slang is stuck in the time they were last free. But the journal, and Ray’s entire story, is his way of taking control of words, too. And of course, let’s bring this back to some blogger navel-gazing. That’s one of the things I like best about blogging (and have missed this last week when I haven’t been able to write anything) — that power to make words and the ideas they represent do my bidding, to find the perfect image or turn of phrase, to put the letters in an order that makes sense to me. It’s a minor detail in The Keep, but it really jumped out at me. I bought The Keep on cd on a whim when I was faced with a long car trip recently, and I was glad I did, because there were times I didn’t want to stop driving until I found out what happened. Out of the four works of fiction here, The Keep is probably the “best,” although King Dork was the most fun. I’d recommend those two above the others, but if you’re looking for stocking stuffer for the fiction lovers on your list, any of these four would be good choices. (B&N, Amazon, Powell’s)