'Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.'
- Quote from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Room by Emma Donoghue
Gripping fiction 
(** If you have not yet read this book. there are some minor "spoilers" here.)

Room by Emma Donoghue is a riveting read about abduction and survival against all odds, told from a child's point of view.  The novel begins, "Today I am five.  I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I'm changed to five, abracadabra.  Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero."

Choosing to write this story through Jack's eyes is risky.  It takes great skill to keep such narration consistent, as well as engaging for the audience, but Donoghue succeeds in this literary task.  The use of proper nouns for all things important to Jack is an effective strategy which emphasizes the boy's innocence, attaching the character to the reader's heart.  This bond builds throughout the first half of the book so that during the climactic scene, the reader's gut is twisting, and he/she is praying for Jack's safety.  It is a masterfully written episode, and it is here that the themes of bravery and heroism are strengthened.   

The second part of the book takes on a completely different scenario, where Ma is developed beyond the heroine of Room.  The reader wants Ma to continue her heroic feats, but it is understandable when she can't.  We can not control the world; Ma can not control the world, and Jack's perceptions of Ma and Outside are filled with confusion which adds thought-provoking discussion for readers.  For example, Jack comments on page 192, "I ate so many bacon I lose count, when I say, "Thank you, Baby Jesus," people stare because I think they don't know him in Outside."  Or on page 287, Jack questions the relationships between adults and children, "Also everywhere I'm looking at kids, adults mostly don't seem to like them, not even the parents do.  They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don't want to actually play with them, they'd rather drink coffee talking to other adults.  Sometimes there's a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn't even hear."
The ending of the story is legitimate and allows the reader to keep questioning the characters' fates.  There's great symbolism in Ma's tooth and her breast-feeding experience, but grasping the reality of Room's size, for the reader as well as the characters, brings further symbolism; after all, with various circumstances and struggles and sacrifices, metaphorically speaking, aren't we all living in Room sometimes?  I highly recommend this book.

Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Semi-fictional novel

Rereading The Dharma Bums at age 43 is a completely different experience compared to reading it in my twenties.  One contrast is the approach I'm using.  Years ago, I read an old paperback copy from a used book store.  Once obsessed with Kerouac, I spent an entire summer researching and reading all things Beat and trying my hand at writing stories and poetry in a Kerouac-inspired fashion.  I purchased for $200 a first-edition Dharma Bums from an independent book seller on Michigan Avenue.  It's been a prized possession ever since, but I never read each and every page of that copy.  This time around, I am, indeed, using the first-edition for seeing the words, but I'm also listening to Allen Ginsberg's audio-recording of Kerouac's work, sometimes rewinding and closing my eyes to revel in the sing-song recitation of the infamous beat poet (it was my first purchase on the new Kindle... another topic for another blog entry).

So, my review. 
In Dharma Bums Kerouac pays tribute to Japhy (Gary Snyder) as he reconstructs his years of searching for spiritual insight.  The first "bum" we meet is a hobo reading a prayer of St. Teresa, a great start for Ray Smith's (Kerouac) holy journey.  He jumps freight trains and hitches rides, transportation reminiscent of On the Road, but unlike this previous work, the experiences and minor characters of Dharma Bums are not symbols of Americana; he is, instead, surrounded by lost souls who think Buddhism is the answer to life's inner-peace.  However, like so many ideals that are based on righteousness, those who participate sometimes do so selfishly and alter the principles to meet their own needs and desires, like the characters here justifying, encouraging even, sex and drugs and alcohol, in spite of dreams of religious purity.  Even Japhy, the  intellectual Zen follower of Buddha, and Ray's role model for enlightenment, digresses, "I'm gonna get married, soon, I think, I'm gettin tired of battin around like this."  Ray replies, "But I thought you'd discovered the Zen ideal of poverty and freedom."  To which Japhy admits, "Aw maybe I'm gettin tired of all that.  After I come back from the monastery in Japan I'll probably have my fill of it anyhow.  Maybe I'll be rich and work and make lots of money and live in a big house" (chapter 24).  Of course that idea is short-lived, but Japhy seems to recognize in himself the contradictions of his life.
Ray travels from Berkeley's campus to Matterhorn mountain where he "almost" makes it to the top with Japhy but falls short, symbolism at its finest, which leads the reader to question which result is more fulfilling.  He returns to his mother's home, sleeping outdoors and finding a perfect place to meditate in the woods, but when he meets up with Japhy again, Japhy has no time for Ray's need to share the experience, not very compassionate.  Finally, while Japhy moves to Japan, Ray takes the position of fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains.  It is here on Desolation Peak where Ray's story ends with a moment of temporary peace, praying more like a Catholic than a Buddhist.

      "Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said 'God, I love 
       you' and looked up to the sky and really meant it.  'I have fallen in love with you,
       God.  Take care of us all, one way or the other' " (last page).

Kerouac's spontaneous rambling style is just as inspiring and exhausting as ever, but I find his "fictional" narrative more crazy than cool, sadder than spiritual.  I feel an unexpected sense of sorrow for the man, an emotion that I don't recall having years ago.  When I was first turned on to Jack, I believed his addictions and loneliness to be the reasons for his genius.  In retrospect, I now believe that Jack was gifted, no matter his life choices, and I think he would have been just as masterly if happy and content, but I guess we'll never know.  So much of Dharma Bums revolves around meditating and reading and talking about Ray's meditations and books and discussions.  This may not seem like much of a story, but in true Kerouac finesse, it really is, man, it really is.

If anyone is a Kerouac lover like me, you might be interested in checking out the blog: .  David Berner is the current Writer-in-Residence at the Jack Kerouac Project.  He is staying at the former home of Kerouac's mother, the same home where Jack wrote The Dharma Bums in eleven days.  On his blog, Berner discusses his own writing as well as the experience of writing in this historic home, creating in the same room that once housed Kerouac's infamous typewriter.  To me, it's fascinating.

The Meaning of Night:  A Confession by Michael Cox 
** This review was published on 8/11/11 at

It's been a while since I read The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox, but I placed it at the top of my favorite books list for a reason.  The Meaning of Night is written in a style reminiscent of Wilkie Collins or Charles Dickens, taking the reader on a journey through the times and landscapes of mid-19th century London, and the mystery that is exposed on these pages is one of haunting excitement.  It's a lengthy and Gothic tale, one of frantic suspense filled with multi-layered characters and deep subplots that explore love and vengeance, sacrifice and entitlement, secrets and deceptions.  The chapters read like the serials of years past, cliff-hanging, urging the reader to keep going.

The main character and narrator, Edward Glyver, is tormented and consumed with revenge.  Readers will not connect with him at the start, thinking him cold and detached and plain-old unlikeable.  The first line of the book (a "Confession") matter-of-factly states:  "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper."  As the plot unfolds, however, and Edward's story is revealed, the same readers are psychologically transformed against their wills to accept Edward, and then understand Edward, even sympathize, until they find themselves wanting desperately to shout out as his friend, "No, Edward!  Don't!" 

At some point in time, we all want to place blame anywhere but within ourselves for life's misfortunes.  Sometimes there is truth and honesty in that charge; other times it is an excuse or crutch or, in Edward's case, a complete obsession.  Phoebus Daunt, a life-long nemesis, is the target of Glyver's compulsion.  As readers, we are well aware of calculations and plans for Phoebus' demise, but the author masterfully builds the tension throughout 700+ pages, creating an epic literary experience for all who pick up this highly recommended thriller.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!”
- from On the Road by Jack Kerouac

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