Sunday, July 01, 2007

June's Reads: Running Away From Home

This doesn't happen to me often: As I was writing my reviews for June's reads, I noticed that in one way or another, all the books I read had people leaving home for one reason or another!

My Side Of The Mountain - Jean Craighead George
Sam Gribley, a boy in his early teens, lives in New York City, but wants to be like his Great-Grandfather Gribley and live off the land. With a flint, a penknife, an ax, some string and forty dollars in his pocket, he announces to his parents that he's headed to Gribley's farm in the Catskill Mountains. His folks figure they'll see him again in a day or two, so they say sure, give it a go. Sam's year-long adventure begins.

I'm a sucker for survival/rugged individualist books, but I may have read this one too late in life. Although I know Sam probably pored single-mindedly over everything he could get his hands on about living successfully in the wilderness, he seems almost too skilled to be believable. Often, My Side Of The Mountain lacked tension, and this could have been achieved with Sam having a little more trial-and-error in his experiences.

Also, Sam's narrative voice sounds dull and fusty. I know he's no ordinary kid, but in my mind's ear, I was hearing a middle-aged person droning a bit. There's a part in My Side Of The Mountain where Sam miscalculates with almost fatal results, but because of that drony narrative style, the importance of the incident would probably almost go over the head of a young reader.

I would have dismissed the whole book -- the laissez-faire parents, the nice, helpful adults, Sam's uber-competence -- except that Sam reminded me of Eustace Conway, who is the subject of a book I really enjoyed by Elizabeth (Eat, Pray, Love) Gilbert called The Last American Man.

Eustace Conway was brought up in a family of people who were lovers of and experts at wilderness living, and his mother and father taught him everything they knew. When he wasn't too much older than Sam Gribley, he set out to live off the land in a tepee, and has been doing so ever since, buying up thousands of acres of land in North Carolina to keep it undeveloped and teaching wilderness skills classes at his preserve to interested children and adults. Although Gilbert can't seem to keep herself and her girlish crush on Conway out of the book, she does a fine job of writing about a complex man who was born about a century too late.

On The Road - Jack Kerouac

" Wild form's the only form holds what I have to say - my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory...I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know."
-Jack Kerouac

On The Road is the story of Sal Paradise, a young writer and his traveling buddy, Dean Moriarty. Together and separately, they and their friends furiously crisscross the United States from New York to California several times, with a trip to Mexico thrown in for good measure, traveling by any means they can find, and fueled by drugs, alcohol, sex, jazz and dreams.

When Sal is describing life on the road or an evening of listening to jazz, the language is almost out of control, but beautiful in its wildness. When this same wild language is in the mouth of Dean Moriarty, there's a scariness to it because although he espouses freedom and love, while he's shaking, sweating, and groaning, it's like there's really nobody home behind those eyes.

And there really isn't, because Dean is constantly looking for the next adventure, which usually involves women on each coast or even at opposite ends of town, leaving the debris of relationships in his wake as he babbles nonstop about the purity of his intentions while driving 110 miles an hour. His life is complex, but stupidly so. The women in his life seem to accept him back so easily after he "blows his top" then goes off because he's "digging" something or someone else, but they're probably shell shocked.

I actually preferred the novel when Dean would disappear for pages at a time, and Sal was hanging out with his other friends like Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsburg) and Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) or hitchhiking across the United States, naming the towns and relaying his adventures and giving his impressions in that beautiful, slightly dreamy prose that seems so peaceful after Dean's stammering and craziness.

My Brother's Keeper - Marcia Davenport
To say that Seymour and Randall Holt have "The Grandmother From Hell" is no exaggeration. The two boys and their parents live in the same house Mrs. Holt has lived in her entire life. The old woman never wanted her son to marry, but when John Holt finally rebels in middle age, she focuses her iron will on suppressing any joy or spontaneous life-force that might exist in his young wife. When John is killed unexpectedly, it just makes her job that much easier, and the boys watch their mother disintegrate mentally and physically, helpless to save her.

Grandmother Holt is determined to rule from beyond the grave, as well. With the help of a few sharp lawyers, she ties up Seymour and Randall's inheritance so they can't inherit until they're middle-aged men, and they'll just get a trickle of interest off of the principle. In addition, they cannot sell the house, a source of so many bleak and depressing memories, and which is also slowly but surely falling into ruin.

Although the brothers are intelligent and handsome, forces attack them from both inside and out. The cruel psychological damage inflicted by their grandmother has already left its mark on both men. Soon, Seymour learns that he's going blind, and realizes that he'll probably never be able to make a clean break with the past. His bitterness leads him to betray his kind and shy younger brother Randall in an incident involving Renata, a beautiful Italian opera singer. His actions as well as Randall's subsequent ones, have consequences that have a ripple effect in their lives for the next few years.

Randall moves to Italy for a few years, but comes to the sinking realization that he can't escape being "my brother's keeper", and that Seymour and the house, which is in unspeakable condition by now, wait patiently and malevolently for him to accept his --and Seymour's-- doom.

I can't believe this wonderfully readable book has never been made into a movie! Whether Marcia Davenport did it deliberately or if the influence of the cinema was unconscious, My Brother's Keeper has a decidedly cinematic feel. What Hitchcock or Welles could've done with this novel makes my head spin. Today, in 2007, I can't decide if it should be a big studio production or done by an intelligent, responsible indie director.

Road To Perdition -Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner

This is the graphic novel that the movie starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman was based on. During the early days of the Depression, Michael O'Sullivan is able to support his family well by doing mysterious work for John Looney, an Irish-American gangster. One day, his son Michael, Jr. sneaks into the back seat of the car as his father goes off to work, and finds out that Michael, Sr. is an assassin for Looney, so effective at his job that he's nicknamed "The Angel Of Death" or more simply, "Angel".

Looney's son, Connor, who is part of this particular job, also sees the boy and shares the information with Looney, Sr, who orders the whole O'Sullivan family wiped out. Surviving a half-successful attempt, Michael O'Sullivan develops a two-pronged plan: To get his surviving son safely to Perdition, Kansas as soon as possible, and to get revenge on Looney (and the whole gangster syndicate, if necessary) for the murder of his wife and his younger son.

Road To Perdition is an entertaining movie, but the graphic novel is even better. The story is more streamlined, less cluttered. Looney and his son are the focus of Michael's revenge, but there aren't a lot of extra scenes featuring their point-of-view, or a big and overblown confrontation scene. The odious character played by Jude Law in the movie is not present in the graphic novel, which is great, because his scenes slowed the movie down. Also, the end of the novel fits beautifully with the title and themes.


Gentle Reader said...

Wow--you got a lot of reading done. Good for you! Isn't it interesting how when in your life you read something colors how you feel about it? I remember loving My Side of the Mountain when I was a kid, but I'm sure I wasn't that discriminating a reader then--I loved it because it showed a kind of courage and self-sufficiency I knew I would never have, so it was an empowering read. My son read it when he was 9, and liked it too.

I read On the Road when I was in college and remember really disliking the characters because they seemed so self-involved, but I was self-righteous at the time :)

Carrie K said...

A theme, eh?

I was SO disappointed in On The Road. What a group of self absorbed jackasses.

That Grandmother From Hell in My Brother's Keeper sounds hellish! Yikes. Hopefully she exists solely in fiction.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read My Side of the Mountain since middle school, but the comments are interesting and make me think of the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin. An otherwise talented author, who churned out a droll, lifeless story in an attempt to make it readable for youngsters.

Lisa Jean said...

Too bad about My Side of the Mountain. I must have read it 6 or 7 times when I was a kid. I loved the fact that Sam lived in a tree. Plus I too was/am a sucker for these survival stories.

kookie said...

I rather liked Jude Law in 'The Road to Perdition' but you are right, he is not necessary to the story. The graphic novel is amazing.

Kathy said...

I loved My Side of the Mountain when I was a kid but I gave it to my daughter and she didn't like it at all, but she was older than I was when I read it.

I still haven't read On the Road. I'll have to read Road to Perdition -- I liked the movie but keep hearing the story is much better. I have been reading your blog for awhile and really enjoy it.

Tara said...

This book 'My Brother's Keeper' sounds fantastic! I looked up the real - life brothers on Wikipedia and I don't know which is stranger - the reality or the novel. Over on Wikipedia there are photographs of how the house looked - so horrifying!

Bybee said...

Gentle Reader,
I feel really terrible that I didn't like My Side Of The Mountain more, and that I didn't get to it when I was a kid. There's a little pocket of time when I was really interested in reading about Daniel Boone that I think I would've loved this book.

Carrie K,
I keep trying to think who could play the grandmother in the movie version.

That is a surprise. Usually Le Guin knocks the ball out of the park with her stuff.

Lisa Jean,
I guess I liked the parts of the book better than the whole. I liked the living in the tree as well.

I was impressed that Jude Law wasn't playing a pretty boy. Remember those teeth?

Oh yes, definitely give Road To Perdition a go. You won't be sorry.

Davenport's depiction of the brothers' ultimate fate is almost verbatim from the real-life events that occured. My husband's a minimalist, so the Collyer Brothers' situation is his worst nightmare.

Dewey said...

You might like Hatchet, which reminds me a bit of My Side of the Mountain. It might or might not have some of the qualities that you didn't like about MSotM. It has sequels, which is always nice, in case you get hooked. ;)

I really want to read The Road to Perdition, now! I haven't seen the movie. But I'm a fan of graphic novels. If you want a REAL grandmother from hell, you could read the series Preacher, which is out in TPB, but it's very long and quite gory.

Ha ha, Carrie makes me laugh.

Bookfool said...

Escapist. ;)

My youngster and I love My Side of the Mountain. He read the sequel(s?), also. I've just read the original, but I read it two or three times. He was going through the "Nyeh, not interested in books" phase when I tempted him with a few old favorites of mine and discovered he and I share a love of survival stories. Aha! From then on, it was easy to choose books for him until he got past that phase. Cool, eh?

Bybee said...

I really enjoyed Hatchet, and thought that My Side Of The Mountain would be something like that, except with someone who was embracing the survival mode rather than being thrust into it.

It's one thing to be a kick-ass bookworm, but you've taken it to a new level when you strive to gather up new readers and mold them into kick-ass bookworms as well. Way to go, Mom!

Anonymous said...

Damn, you just reminded me of another book (Eat, Pray, Love) that I wanted to read for my armchair traveler challenge - at this rate I'm going to have more alternate titles than originals!

Bookfool said...

Thank you, Bybee. He reads more books per year than I do, now. I love it. :)