Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The horror, the horror...":
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I am particularly excited about today's reviews - because one of my personal blogging heroes, Captain Dumbass from Us and Them, and my personal wifey heroine, the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated, have joined forces today in a special Halloween Horror presentation. Sensing that I could not sustain the blistering of pace of posting here on three consecutive weeks without some help from (semi-)professionals, these Juggernauts of the Blogsphere are on-hand to take this thing up to a whole new level - with their reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the Jane Austen classic - with some good, old-fashioned zombification added by Seth Grahame-Smith). I promised that today's post would include (little or) no Jim Styro content - so without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

A few months back Middle Aged Woman from Unmitigated asked if I would like to do a book review with her for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. I immediately jumped at the chance since I had been waiting for the book to come out and it gave me an excuse to go out and buy it. After setting aside everything else I was reading and quickly working through the book, I immediately ground to a halt. A book review? When was the last time I'd done a book review? Junior high? Elementary school? Panic set in, but it was quickly replaced by the relaxed absence of any thought at all. My mind is quite adept at making uncomfortable situations disappear. Tra-la-la-la-la. But then MAW kept emailing and Twittering and leaving troll-like comments on my blog. What the hell, woman? You're making it very difficult for me to ignore you. Sigh. So what can I say about this book? I think this one passage can best sum up Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for me:

She remembered the lead ammunition in her pocket and offered it to him. "Your balls, Mr. Darcy?" He reached out and closed her hand around them, and offered, "They belong to you, Miss Bennett."
Early 19th century angsty love, the crossing of social boundaries, sexual innuendo and the walking dead, what more could you ask for? I'm sure it's a close rendition of what Jane Austen would have written if not tied down by the rigid boundaries of society in the early 1800's. If you've never read an Austen book or seen one of the multitude of movie adaptations but felt that you should, this is a good place to start. Seriously. Author Seth Grahame-Smith has done a fantastic job of adapting the original book into something very entertaining and easily read. Aside from the additions of a zombie plague, Grahame-Smith kept to most of original text but cleaned it up in a way to make it friendlier to readers in the here and now. Not that the minutia of two hundred year old pre-Victorian romance isn't riveting, but this adaptation makes things a little more understandable and humorous for readers who would never have thought of picking up a Jane Austen novel. The thing I admire most about this work is the simplicity and adaptability of the idea. You could do this to literally ANY story. Granted, rewriting an entire book is a serious amount of work, still, at the same time it sings to the laziness inside me. For example, The Odyssey by Homer

"Sing to me of the zombie, Muse, the zombie of twists and turns driven time and again by hunger, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he ate and tasted of their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, starving once his comrades were but bone."
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy:

"Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than hellish estates of the un-dead. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Apocalypse (upon my word, I believe it is), I don't know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say for you will join them. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I'm scaring you, do sit down and talk to me."
And, from the New York
Fate of White House Counsel Is in Doubt After Bruising Fights
By PETER BAKER Published: October 21, 2009

"WASHINGTON — Every morning, Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel, sits at the conference table of the Roosevelt Room with the president’s depleted senior staff. The one issue that does not come up? Mr. Craig himself. As President Obama’s top lawyer, Mr. Craig has been at the center of thorny decisions on halting the transfer of zombie plague victims (ZP's) to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, revising interrogation and detention policies and simply executing them, problems that have bedeviled the new administration and generated fierce battles inside and outside the White House. And for months now, he has endured a spate of speculation in print and around the White House about whether he himself has been infected by the plague."
Song lyrics, commercials, children's books... once you start, it's hard to stop. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that as a book review, this would probably be handed back by the teacher with an awful lot of red ink and the sixth letter of the alphabet in prominent display, but you know what? That teacher can suck it. Bottom line, Seth Grahame-Smith has attached his name to a literary classic just by adding some zombie horror to it. I sincerely hope he's making a boat load of money off this.

She Read:

If you have long loved Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you may rest assured that Elizabeth Bennet is still a thoughtful, strong heroine, mortified by her mother, Mr. Darcy is still brooding and proud, and Mr. Collins is still an ass.

Seth Grahame-Smith's transformation of the Jane Austin classic is absolutely seamless. It's as if the novel was written this way in the first place by a precognicient Austen to appeal to the early 21st century fascination with the undead.

What's up with that, by the way? When did reanimated corpses in search of brains become hilarious? You can find knitted zombies on Etsy now, for pete's sake.

My reviewing partner, Captain Dumbass once featured these on his blog.

Zombies used to be scary. Now they are the butt of our jokes. This one is by Dennis Culver.

Back to the review. Austen's tale is about the Bennets, a family in 19th century England who, because they have five daughters and no sons, will lose their estate and income, upon the death of their father. Mr. Bennet is a bit of an absentee father, as he is a very sensible man who has found it easier to withdraw to his study than to argue with his very insensible wife. Mrs. Bennet is very eager to see the girls married well (and by that she means to someone wealthy). Pride and Prejudice is the tale mostly of Elizabeth, or Lizzie, the strong-willed second daughter, who is sensible like her father, and her relationship with the cold, proud Mr. Darcy. Of course they start off disliking each other very much, and end up in love against their will, paving the way for the plot of every Harlequin romance ever written.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 19th century England is overrun with "unmentionables" whom Lizzie and her sisters have been trained to dispatch by Shaolin monks, at the insistence of the very sensible Mr. Bennet. In this version, the haughty Lady Catherine is admired, not for her connections at court, but for her martial abilities. The dreadfully absurd Mr. Collins refers to her this way as he proposes to Lizzie:

"...I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine De Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her powers of combat beyond anything I can describe; and your own talents in slaying the stricken, I think, must be acceptable to her, though naturally, I will require you to retire them as part of your marital submission."

There are occasional vignettes that are entirely added by Grahame-Smith. When the Bennet girls and Mr. Collins undertake the walk to Meryton where they will meet the villain Mr. Wickham, along the way they find trouble. The carriage of a young girl they know has been overturned in a gulley and set upon by zombies. To prevent the spread of the scourge, Elizabeth snatches the pipe from the mouth of Mr. Collins, "a gift from her ladyship," and tosses it down into the gulley, fire being one of the ways in which unmentionables are dispatched.

In a turn I found particularly satisfying, Lizzie's best friend Charlotte, who marries the insufferable Mr. Collins, is stricken, as she calls it, after having been grabbed and bitten on the ankle by a zombie trapped under the coach. Her words to Elizabeth, "I don't have long, Elizabeth. I only hope that my final months will be happy ones, and that I be permitted a husband who will see to my proper Christian beheading and burial."

What every girl dreams of.

With the successful transformation of Pride and Prejudice, one can only imagine the possibilities for other famous works in the public domain.
Dickens, anyone?

[Hope you were terrified by this special Halloween Horror edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) for bailing me out sharing their thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. A little bird told me there are several other books which trash the classics spice up these musty old tomes by adding assorted monsters and mayhem - perhaps we can convince these two to join forces again some time soon. Please take a minute to visit their blogs and share some comment love. I hear that the Middle-Aged Woman is even giving away a prize to some lucky winner at Unmitigated!!

Please keep in mind that your participation is what helps make He Read/She Read a special place. If you:

- Have a book you would like to see reviewed on He Read/She Read
– Are interested in being a guest writer for one of our featured reviews
– Would like to do your own mini-review (100 words or less?) of a book previously reviewed here (I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers as a complement to the featured reviews)

Then: Please use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, Jim Styro returns - aided and abetted by

the lovely Pamela from the dayton time - to review
Yan Martel's Life of Pi

Spread the word.
Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
Tell complete strangers.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And the more pages you turn, the more calories you burn.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Natives are restless:
Traveling The Powwow Highway

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome back to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

The lovely Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long was one of the very first readers here to step boldly forward and express a desire to join forces with me in presenting a book review. We picked one of her personal favorites, David Seals' The Powwow Highway, in the hope that some folks who might never had heard of this book might have their curiosity piqued.

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

She Read:

(Disclaimer: Fortunately for me, Jim Styro is not my boss. Because he would fire me. Unfortunately for Jim Styro, re-reading a book I read in college apparently triggered some of my latent deadline avoidance. Jim, I owe you beer and/or many other beverages. And this apologetic, very much not-on-time review.)

Powwow Highway is a book I loved in college. LOVED. And re-reading it, I think my LOVE has maybe turned to ~love~. BUT it's still a very worth-it novel set in a realistic, if difficult, world on the borders of my own.

Superficially, Powwow Highway is a familiar caper/road-to-redemption/endearing-cons-triumph-over-the-man story. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid...If Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were two somewhat life-battered American Indians on a road trip to rescue a drug-dealing damsel in distress - and her kids - in a burnt-out car full of beer, porn, and marijuana. And if they spent their road trip getting high and drunk, committing larceny, pissing off some white people, and taking a number of detours - both literal and metaphysical - on the road to heroism.

The main characters are reservation Cheyennes in the 1970's, and their experiences of poverty, tragedy, history, mysticism, casual sense of oppression (and anger at same) are core to the story, but difficult for me, a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, to observe without occasional, subjective little fusspot asides, like: a) bad personal accounting! and b) random-ass-kicking! and c) drug use! while driving!! and d) child neglect!!! But it also appeals to my rebel level. And my spiritual quest level. And even my romantic level. (I'm like an onion that way...)

The book centers around Philbert, the sweet heart (and, I guess, eventually the "sweetheart") of the novel. Philbert is an overweight, methodical, traditional young Cheyenne. A little drunk. A little gullible. And Buddy, an intense, well-educated, passionate, angry Vietnam vet who is the golden boy of their tribe. Together, Philbert and Buddy take off with some "borrowed" tribal council money in Philbert's battle-scarred Buick to bail Buddy's sister Bonnie from jail and rescue her kids, Sky and Jane. (And then get themselves back to Indian land when things go, as they will in this kind of tale, crazily, chaotically awry).

Most of the book takes place on the roads which loosely, meanderingly connect Lame Deer, Montana to Santa Fe, NM. Or, at least, in the effort of transition from one place to another. As a former road-tripper, I found myself captivated by Seals' demonstration of how a destination is only one of the places a journey may take you, even as I recognize the overuse of that metaphor. But, as with powerful folklore, sometimes a strong metaphor is part of the pleasure and familiarity of the story. And stylistically the book is laid out as a series of folklore vignettes: (The Origin of the Pony, The Warriors find the Princess).

There's a moment in the book which is simultaneously gorgeous, passionate, completely spiritual, and totally vulgar: On the way to New Mexico, Philbert ends up detouring into South Dakota to a mountain which holds special religious significance to the Cheyenne. Philbert climbs the butte, gasping and marvelling at the world and struggling his way to an epiphany, and then masturbates into the dirt in a sort-of blissed-out spiritual consummation with the earth. It's a great scene, and is the site of Philbert's rebirth as a stronger, more self-confident man. (But also, you know...sperm!) But I love it for the way in which it marries the crass and physical with the sublime and esoteric, and that, more than any other scene, has stayed with me over the years. Plus Philbert is just an endearing bear of a character.

All the players find haven at the end of the trip (and occasionally along the way). And resolution, at least of a kind. It's worth the time. And although there are other, slightly more mainstream and equally brilliant Native American authors (tip hat to my secret boyfriend, Sherman Alexie), I think David Seals is a master and have always been very sad that he only has the two books (this and a semi-sequel called "Sweet Medicine") which can be easily purchased. (Wikipedia lists a few more, but I can't find them for sale anywhere).

I guess this is as good a place as any to note that this is a PROFANE book. I'd forgotten just how much. Sweet, and surprisingly touching, but maybe not meant to read aloud to your grandmother (or, since I don't know your grandmother - not to mine).

He Read:

While known and beloved by Rebekah, The Powwow Highway was unknown to me until about a month ago. When, in the course of a few exchanged emails, it became clear to me how much more well- and widely-read my esteemed colleague was than myself, I made the quick (and smart, may I add) decision to let her pick the book we would review. On reflection, I think that having little or no expectations of an artwork (be it a book, a painting, a film or a piece of music) is quite helpful in being able to experience that work with a sort of purity, unburdened by expectations or preconceived notions. That said, let me get to my post-conceived notions.

David Seals’ novel is in many ways a modest little story that deals primarily with a 4-day road trip by Philbert Bono and Buddy Red Wing, which takes them from their hometown of Lame Deer (in southeastern Montana) to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Philbert and Buddy are on a meandering quest to bail Buddy’s sister, Bonnie, out of jail – but along the way they commune with nature (in a very special way), bond with old friends at a powwow, do battle with a dragon (in the form of a marauding snow plow) and, generally, raise havoc wherever they trod.

But Seals’ book is about much more than a road trip – because he sets his mythic tale within the unglamorous world of Native Americans in 1970s America. He shows us both the grandiose and grungy aspects of this culture and gives the reader a sense of larger-than-life adventure without losing touch with reality. In fact, the relationship between fantasy and reality, the mingling of truth and lies, is an idea which undergirds the entire story. Seals puts it this way:

There are two parts to every story: the part that is believable and the part that is not. It is impossible to determine which of the two is the truth and which of the two is a lie, for a lie is an extension of the truth and nobody knows what the hell the truth is. Perhaps it is a lie that is so exciting and preposterous that is has to be true.
But nobody really knows.
Later in the book, he introduces a chapter in the book by telling us that Philbert and Buddy have “come upon the most unbelievable episode they are to encounter on their voyage. Therefore it is the most authentic episode of the voyage.” On The Powwow Highway, you can never be too sure who to believe – but you can be sure that the characters who present themselves as trustworthy shouldn't be trusted.

It is Seals’ ability to portray his characters, even ones incidental to the major storyline, with a keen eye for detail (Buddy’s fragile ego, Philbert’s stoic sweetness, Bonnie’s steadfast shallowness) – along with his desire to provide a larger context for the tale (by opening the book with a complete history of Philbert’s car, for example; or weaving episodes from Native American history into the narrative, like the death of Crazy Horse in 1877) – which help bring the reader along on the journey. In the midst of this wild ride, Seals will frequently take a scenic detour – like the two pages which comprise Chapter 11. We makes a brief stop at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church in Lame Deer, where the 6 am Mass is always packed with Indians waiting to worship – the sunrise.

One of the most heartfelt passages in the book deals with the unexpected reunion of Buddy with two other Vietnam vets at the powwow in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In the intertribal unit they fought with, Seals tells us, “they were the only three of the fifteen that enlisted together to come back.” One of the men, Jimmy Campbell, breaks down in the midst of their gathering – the war has left him with many scars, including a stutter that leaves him almost mute.

(Jimmy) couldn't finish his thought. He struggled fiercely, his face contorted and growing furiously scarlet…he started weeping pathetically. Buddy clasped him in his arms roughly.

“Shut up, goddammit, you don’t gotta say nothin’!” Buddy choked, his own tears bursting out from the nightmare they had shared together and would never escape. “Don’t say nothin’, Jimmy boy, don’t say nothin’.”

He rocked the soldier in his arms. Several kids nearby stared in wonder at the two men. The adults were all moved to thoughts of their own shame and ate buffalo stew.
But I fear that I’m making the trip sound far too serious and high-minded. This is not a book for those whose sensibilities are too delicate. It is filled with beer and drugs and sex; lawlessness, immorality and violence – and it makes all this seem not only funny – but fun! Where else can you find a writer will to devote 9 pages to the most hilarious tale ever regarding a car stuck in snow? Seals uses his punch lines to temper any tendency for the story to take flight into mythic mumbo-jumbo; he keeps it real – as in this passage when our heroes finally cross the border into New Mexico:

The border turned their thoughts to their impending task. The closer they got to their impossible goal, the closer Buddy felt to a sense of irretrievable failure that he had been fighting all his life. Perhaps he was self-destructive, he thought, summoning a psychological phrase he had learned in college. After all, success in a world that one despises is the highest form of failure.

No, analysis was foolish. Buddy was a jerk, that was all.
But it is Philbert who becomes the hero – “the fact that he knew he was a jerk…gave him hope. He knew their only chance for success was in foolishness.” Seals elaborates on this seeming contradiction at the crucial moment when Philbert announces (to the three children that help him carry it out) his plan to rescue Bonnie:

The air grew thick and ominous with Taku skanskan tawaiciyapi, to use the Lakota phrase, an untranslatable aura of unreal freedom, an Indian reality at implausible odds with the rational world of whitemen. Taku skanskan was a pure spiritual vitality that radioactivated the bejesus out of any foreign impurities. And Philbert would have driven a logical Geiger counter berserk with his illogical radioactivity…
And so this book is a unique mix of the profound and the profane, the sublime and the ridiculous. Reaching the end, some readers may wonder “What was the point of the whole journey?” I would respond – The Journey was the whole point. Some readers may feel that Philbert and Buddy are just as concerned with getting high as getting Bonnie (a point that would be difficult to argue against) – but, on The Powwow Highway, who says you can’t do both…simultaneously.

[We hope you enjoyed this edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including suggestions and constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Rebekah from Waffles Waffles All Day Long for sharing her thoughts on The Powwow Highway. If she can get over her deadline anxiety, maybe I can convince her to try it again sometime. Please take a minute to visit Rebekah's blog. Leave her some comment love and tell her Jim Styro sent you.

If you have a book you would like to see used as the basis of a He Read/She Read post – or if you are interested in being a guest writer here – use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, we will have a new "first" here at He Read/She Read - book reviews with absolutely no Jim Styro content at all. (Of course, you can always stop by Speaking in CAPS if you miss me.)

Tell everyone you know that, next Wednesday, Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) will review Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith with all little help from Jane Austen (or is it the other way around?).

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And it always leaves plenty of room for dessert.]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Breaking news

After much procrastination and recrimination careful planning and prodigious effort, I am pleased to announce details on the upcoming schedule here at He Read/She Read:

Next Wednesday, October 21 -
The Powwow Highway.....reviewed by Rebekah (from Waffles Waffles All Day Long) and me

Read in rapt fascination as two middle-class white people offer their insights into this road-trip saga of a Native American odd couple, Philbert Bono and Buddy Red Wing, in the wild west of the 1970s.

Wednesday, October 28 -
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.....reviewed by the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated and Captain Dumbass from Us and Them

Experience bone-numbing terror as our international tag-team of reviewers spill their guts (figuratively) about this reimagining of Jane Austin's classic. It'll be "spill, or be spilled" here at He Read/She Read - just in time for Halloween.

and, tentatively, on

Wednesday, November 4 -
Life of Pi.....reviewed by Pamela (from the dayton time) and me

Find out how and why a mother of four young children devours an entire 400-page book in one day. Find out whether I can finish the book in a time-frame that will not make me look like a complete "book wimp".
Find out about "a story that will make you believe in God"*.

It just quicken the pulse, doesn't it?

[Remember - if you'd like to do a review for He Read/She Read, please leave a comment below or - better yet - send an email using this link (or the one in the "Contact Us" section).

*The author's words, not mine. You'll have to wait until Nov. 4 to find out whether I'm convinced. Of course, I already believe in God - so maybe that's cheating.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Coming Attractions

Lest that you think we are sleeping here in Düsseldorf*, I wanted to provide an update on what we have planned for you here at He Read/She Read.

Next week, Rebekah (from Waffles Waffles All Day Long) and I are planning to hold forth on David Seals' The Powwow Highway. Keep an eye out here, there and at Speaking in CAPS for details on when those reviews will be posted.

I am also now reading Yann Martel's Life of Pi so that Pamela (from the dayton time) and I can bestow upon you, Gentle Reader, all our accumulated wisdom concerning that tome...and stuff.

And, sometime soon, He Read/She Read will be proud (and relieved) to present to you our first Jim Styro-less review (please, please...hold your applause until all the names have been read) when Captain Dumbass (my personal hero, from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (my personal heroine, from Unmitigated) will dazzle us with their insights concerning Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which takes Jane Austen's classic tale and, with considerable assistance from Seth Grahame-Smith, adds the brain-eating undead. Sounds like fun.

You don't want to miss a thing.
So remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you.

And you didn't really want to rake up the leaves anyway.

* Thanks to Jim Henson & Mel Brooks.