Review: Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

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Photo: Goodreads

Night fell long and cool through the woods about him and spectral quietude set in. As if something were about that crickets and nightbirds held in dread. He went on faster. With full dark he was confused in a swampy forest, floundering through sucking quagmires… in full flight now, the trees beginning to close him in, malign and baleful shapes that reared like enormous androids provoked at the alien insubstantiality of this flesh colliding among them.

Cormac McCarthy’s second novel, Outer Dark was published by Random House in 1968 at the peak of the Southern Gothic literature scene, and is peppered with genre specific tropes McCarthy does so well – grotesque themes, damaged and delusional characters on the outskirts of society, an underlying theme that fate or something just as menacing and inescapable is just out of the field of vision. That lingering maliciousness hovers over Rinthy and Culla Holmes, siblings residing in an isolated cabin in Johnson County, a non distinct town hued in shadow (similar to the main characters in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

Rinthy bears her brother’s child, suffering through a long labor because he is unwilling to get a midwife, worried she might reveal their insectuous secret. When Rinthy finally rests, Culla takes the baby and leaves it in the woods, telling his sister the child fell ill and died. Rinthy quickly discovers an empty grave and sets off to find a tinker, suspecting her brother has sold the baby because no one else has passed their home in months. Culla leaves too, supposedly to bring Rinthy home, but his aimlessness seems more like an escape from the persecution of his sins.

On their separate paths, Rinthy and Culla encounter different degrees of hospitality. Rinthy’s innocent nature and sickly physique encourage strangers to welcome her with food and shelter, while Culla is met with suspicion, violence, and denied work. Three mysterious men follow Culla for what seems like no reason at all, until we discover this is a story about inhumanity and prophesy, all culminating in a judgement day-like conclusion.

With Outer Dark being McCarthy’s second novel you may expect amateur writing as he figures out his literary limbs, but he was very ambitious (and successful) in the themes he chose to explore in the novel. McCarthy studies the strange behavior of his characters, their dialect, mental instabilities, and ultimately the harm they do to each other, a point illuminated by the tinker when he says he has “seen the meanness of humans till I dont know why God aint put out the sun and gone away.”  The novel also deals in the themes of blindness, darkness, and religion, the title itself referring to a biblical verse “And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 25:30 (KJV) a foreboding to apocalyptic revelations to come, like the rapture itself.

Lyricism compliments broken dialogue, simple people and surroundings, and as the story progresses McCarthy plays with reader’s anticipations. We’re convinced something terrible will happen, so he draws the situation out one string at a time, slowly teasing it apart, growing more deliberate towards later chapters where Rinthy and Culla’s dovetailing  paths draw closer to a similar dire fate; Holmes dealing with death face on, and Rinthy close on the tinker’s heels.

Even with the bleak themes of Southern Gothic, Outer Dark is a tamer version of McCarthy’s usual work, so is a good choice for starting out if you’ve yet to give him a read. Still, in it’s “tamer” nature, there will be moments when you turn away from the page and it’s unpleasant details, but will finish the book with an idea of reading it again.  Cormac McCarthy is not for the faint of heart or ego. If you’re a writer, read this book knowing that you will question everything you’ve ever written as rubbish, but will learn a great deal. My copy of Outer Dark is full of highlights and marginal notes, like any good book should be.

Book six of ten books of summer.

Have you read Outer Dark? What did you think of it? Have you read any of Cormac McCarthy’s other books? Can you stomach gruesome subjects in writing or is it a put off/distraction for you? What book do you own with the most highlights or notes?

A little note for #20booksofsummer, I’m currently reading my seventh book, Homegoing (which is great and will have a review up next week), and will be tapping out at that. It’s been great reading some books off of my shelf but I seriously miss lit mags and new books! 🙂

10 Books of Summer Reading Challenge

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Photo: 746 Books

I’m already three books behind in my Goodreads Reading Challenge, where I set a goal of reading 35 books in 2016, but hopefully this challenge will help catch me up. After finding a post over at 746 Books, the blog hosting this summer long challenge, I felt compelled to join in at least to make my growing pile of unread books a little bit smaller.

If you’d like to join in it’s simple; read 10, 15, or 20 books between June 1st and September 5th and let your fellow bloggers know how you’re doing along the way. In keeping with my idea that low expectations=success, I’ve aimed for the lowest amount possible. Even so, being a notoriously slow reader, this may be out of my reach but it’s definitely worth the effort. Here’s the pile I’ll be tackling this summer, click their titles for detailed summaries on Goodreads.

1.Euphoria by Lily King

I just bought a used but good as new copy from my beloved Friends of the Library book sale for $1. Euphoria has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while after seeing it on The Millions list of most anticipated books in 2015. I gave myself a head start and started reading this book yesterday evening. The story is about three young anthropologists in the 1930s, caught in a love triangle. I have yet to get to the parts on illicit love, but so far the book is clever, funny, and well written.

2. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’m finally ready for the Atwood Experience. The Handmaid’s Tale is a classic, but the topic has never drawn me in. I’m a stickler for great first lines and The Blind Assassin has plenty that demand attention; the first line of the book is “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” so I was hooked to find out more. At over 500 pages The Blind Assassin may be the most challenging of the list to get through, but one can dream, right?

3. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

It’s not often that I read books with murder or mystery as a large portion of the plot, but this book has been collecting dust on my shelf for as long as I can remember, and reading this among more cheerful plots balances out my list. This chilling story is Capote’s reconstruction of the real life murder, investigation, and eventual capture, trial, and execution of the killers while conveying great empathy for them. Writing that makes you care about fictional bad characters are great; writing that makes you care about real life murderers are exceptional.

4. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

From the author of acclaimed novel Mr. FoxBoy, Snow, Bird puts a twist on childhood fairy tales. I’ve never read anything of that sort before, but after hearing praise for Oyeyemi’s writing I picked up a discounted copy at Barnes and Nobles. I’m excited to start this one.

5. How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

This book of short stories was given to me during my creative writing class and apparently is a must read for short story lovers and writers alike. Published in 2003, How to Breathe Underwater features nine stories that speak on the endless tragedies of youth. I have been on a short story binge lately so thought this would be a welcome break from all of the long fiction in this list.

6. Rock Springs by Richard Ford

Another short story collection. This is my cheat book, I started reading Rock Springs a while ago but never got around to finishing so want to pick up where I left off. Don’t take my not finishing to mean I did not enjoy the stories; this book is American literature gold.

7. Spheres of Disturbance by Amy Schutzer

Over a year ago after a tour of Red Hen Press, me and a group I was with were given the opportunity to take any book of our choosing – I picked up Spheres of Disturbance but have yet to read it. This book is published under Red Hen Press’ imprint, Artkoi Books, which publishes fiction by lesbian writers.

8. Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

After reading Bad Feminist, I was over the moon to find Roxane Gay was writing a memoir. Gay uses her personal struggles with food and body image to explore “our shared anxieties over pleasure, consumption, appearance, and health.” I especially want to find out how her past, and the traumatic events within it, formed the woman whose work we’re reading today. Unfortunately, Hunger will not be in bookstores until June 14th, but I’ve already pre-ordered my copy – a little nonfiction to break up my reading.

9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Another book I got overly excited about before realizing it had not been released yet. There is a lot of buzz around this debut novel about two half sisters in eighteenth-century Ghana. Their lives veer off on two very different paths, one sold into slavery while the other marries an Englishman and moves to the Cape Coast. I will be attending the ALOUD Reading series on June 7 where Yaa Ghasi will talk about her book. Here’s hoping I’m able to get my hands on and finish reading the book before then. 

10. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

It has been a while since I’ve indulged myself in some Cormac McCarthy and I think I’m well overdue for my fill. I was tempted to give Blood Meridian another read, but still don’t think I’m ready to stomach decapitations and random removal of entrails. Outer Dark may not be any better since the story follows a woman who bears her brother’s child… but I think I’ll be able to stomach it.

Are any of you participating in 20 Books of Summer? What do you think of the books in my list? Are there any that you’ve read and did/didn’t enjoy? Any books that I should just cross of my list?

Used Book Sale Finds

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These have been really productive days for me, I think I’m running on the high of getting back to writing-whatever it is I hope it hangs around awhile longer. Since posting Better Writing Habits for 2016 I’ve been able to stick to my writing goals and have had a nice enough work schedule where I can write first thing in the morning, which I found out helps tremendously. I love getting up with a fresh mind, grabbing a quick drink then heading off to my desired writing spot. I’ve even been able to go to the Writer’s Group on Saturday mornings. Writing early, consistently, and with other writers has helped produce a few blog posts and an eight page short story I’m on the tail end of editing. I come home from work; I write. I go to lunch and set myself up to eat my sandwich in one hand while I write, balancing my notebook on my lap.

Yesterday I got to leave work early and was left with loads of time on a day too nice to spend indoors, so got some writing done before going to a Friends of the Library book sale. I’ve been to one before and I’m certain it’s the best used book sale in Los Angeles that I’ve come across. Volunteers run these sales out of Silver Lake Branch and John C. Fremont library as well as a few other, with donated books (good books) that are sold for as little as 75 cents to $2 a book. This place built my Cormac McCarthy collection for about $4 and he’s brilliant!

I bought twelve books yesterday (two not pictured) that fall into many genres-science fiction, classic reads, and contemporary literature. Here are synopsis’ of the books and some reason why I bought them.

Obligatory Reading

usedbookstorefinds1Animal Farm by George Orwell

I read 1984 for the first time a few months ago and fell in love with George Orwell’s satirical style and writing. I love a good dystopian future.

From the book cover: A farm is taken over by its overworked, mistreated animals. With flaming idealism and stirring slogans, they set out to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality. Thus the stage is set for one of the most telling satric fables ever penned- a razor-edged fairy tale for grown-ups that record the evolution from revolution against tyranny to a totalitarianism just as terrible.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We all got assigned to read this in high school, but it’s rare to appreciate the ‘classics’ first time around – at least for me. This used copy was obviously owned by a student who took great care in note taking and highlighting important plot points, so maybe I’ll learn something.

From the book cover: At the dawn of the next world war, a plane crashes on an uncharted island, stranding a group of schoolboys. At first, with no adult supervision, their freedom is something to celebrate. This far from civilization they can do anything they want. Anything. But as order collapses, as strange howls echo in the night, as terror begins its reign, the hope of adventure seems as far removed from reality as the hope of being rescued…

Cheap ‘n Cheerful

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None of these books are cheerful, but for only $2, this was the cheapest I’d seen these book so thought Why not?

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

I know she wrote the Goldfinch. I know she wrote The Secret History. I’m just unapologetically cheap and can’t bring myself to invest $26 in long literature I might never finish. A volunteer mentioned that Donna Tartt’s other books are more popular, but the story of this one appealed to me the most.

From the book cover: In a small Mississippi town, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes grows up in the shadow of her brother, who-when she was only a baby-was found hanging dead from a black-tupelo tree in their yard. His killer was never identified, nor has his family, in the years since, recovered from the tragedy. For Harriet, who has grown up largely unsupervised, in a world of her own imagination, her brother is a link to a glorious past she has only heard stories about or glimpsed in photograph albums. Fiercely determined, precocious far beyond her twelve years, and steeped in the adventurous literature of Stevenson, Kipling, and Conan Doyle, she resolves, one summer, to solve the murder and exact her revenge. Harriet’s sole ally in this quest, her friend Hely, is devoted to her, but what they soon encounter has nothing to do with child’s play: it is dark, adult, and all too menacing.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

From the book cover: Fight Club’s estranged narrator leaves his lackluster job when he comes under the thrall of Tyler Durden, an enigmatic young man who holds secret after-hours boxing matches in the basement of bars. There two men fight “as long as they have to”. A gloriously original work that exposes what is at the core of our modern world.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon

From the book cover: Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow. The improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

Reading for Writers

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The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & other stories by Charles Bukowski

When I showed my finds to my husband he laughed and said he has a biased against Bukowski because it’s common for people in Brazil (where he’s from) to quote him when they want to appear smart. Well, I want to seem smart too, I said.

Flipping through the contents page some titles I saw were “The Fuck Machine”, “My Big-Assed Mother” and one simply with a swastika symbol, and I realized I had no idea what I just bought.

From the book cover: These mad immortal stories, now surfaced from the literary underground, have addicted legions of American readers, even though the high literary establishment continues to ignore them. In Europe, however (particularly in Germany, Italy, and France where he is published by the great publishing houses), he is critically recognized as one of America’s greatest living realist writers.

Not much detail other than how understated and great Bukowsky is, but I’ll bite based on the story titles alone.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

My love affair with Cormac McCarthy’s writing continues.

From the book cover: All the Pretty Horses tells of a young John Grady Cole, the last of a long line of Texas ranchers. Across the border Maxion beckons-beautiful and desolate, rugged and cruelly civilized. With two companions, he sets off on an idyllic, sometimes comic adventure, to a place where dreams are paid for in blood.

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford

I got my first doses of Richard Ford when my teacher was handing out free books and I ended up with a copy Ford’s short story collection Rock Springs, and heard an excerpt of Canada during class, loving the tone and simplicity of his work. He takes the average American life and makes it interesting, so I’m glad I was able to pick up some of his longer work.

From the book cover: A sportswriter and a real estate agent, husband and father- Frank Bascombe has been many things to many people. His uncertain youth behind him, we follow him through three days during the autumn of 2000, when his trade as a Realtor on the Jersey Shore is thriving. But as a presidential election hangs in the balance, and a postnuclear-family Thanksgiving looms before him, Frank discovers that what he terms the “Permanent Period” is fraught with unforeseen perils.

Closet science lover

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Billions & Billions

Because Carl Sagan, and I like non-fiction that blows my mind.

From the book cover: Sagan applies what we know about science, mathematics, and space to everyday life as well as to the exploration of many essential questions concerning the environment and our future. Ranging far and wide in subject matter, he takes his readers on a soaring journey, from the invention of chess to the possibility of life on Mars, from Monday Night Football to the relationship between the United States and Russia, from global warming to the abortion debate. And, on a more intimate note, we are given a rare glimpse of the author himself as he movingly describes his valiant fight for his life, his love for his family, and his personal beliefs about death and God.

Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005

That’s the very best so obviously I had to get it. I’ve been avoiding science fiction so I could read different genres, but I miss it a lot. Some short stories are just what I need to bring me out of my funk.

From the book cover: A herd of dinosaurs wander the fields of rural Vermont; a young girl discovers what happens when you’re no longer a goddess in a near-future India; Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are put to the test as a family is split apart and then redefined; the last man in the universe, stranded on Mars, searches for meaning with a pop song; and an artificially intelligent turtle questions Intelligent Design and evolution. These are just some of the fourteen award-nominated stories that acclaimed anthologist Jonathan Strahan has assembled in his third annual survey of the best new science fiction stories of the year.

What are some good books you’ve found at a used book sale/store? Are any of these on your TBR list? Have you read any of these titles already, what did you think?

Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

theroadLet me start this off by admitting I went into this book as a skeptic. A nonbeliever of Cormac McCarthy’s literary prowess. Never mind his book-movie deals, video games, and prizes, perhaps his style just wasn’t for me, I thought, and it was about time I begin my life on the outskirts of society.

The first book I picked up of his was multi-award winning Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West. Course. Violent. The odd decapitation and writhing in the entrails of the enemy. Yea… So, before committing to a kindle sample of The Road I knew two things about Cormac McCarthy:

  1. Amazon book suggestion seriously wanted him in my life.
  2. I had only made it a third of the way through the other book of his I read and it was a horrid struggle.

Blood Meridian judges me from my bookshelf, story half told, gathering dust between a Cajun style cookbook and a No Fear Shakespeare book. The shame.

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A polar opposite, The Road, was a pleasant surprise for me. Riddled with themes of dystopia and a touch of horror, the plot surrounds two characters simply called ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’ as they make their way through a post-apocalyptic world covered in a thick toxic ash. The man remembers life before this time but his son is too young to remember the former world which often draws a divide between the pair. In this new reality no one can be trusted, life is hellish, cannibalism is commonplace, and the few who remain trek an endless road to what they hope is salvation. The plot focuses primarily on the relationship and dynamic between father and son, with the man trying to shield the boy from a world of chaos only to realize not every bloated corpse or ‘bad guy’ they encounter on the road to nowhere can be avoided. And at this point, why shield the child from what is essentially his life?

As exciting as the majority of the book is I felt an occasional lull between events, probably because of some repetitive dialogue, no apostrophes, and no identification of who is speaking.

So when are you going to talk to me again?

Im talking now.

Are you sure?

Yes.

Okay.

Okay.

Who is speaking?! The son. No, the man? Why would you do this?

I rely on “…. said” more than I realized, it’s a crutch. Not being told exactly who is speaking takes some getting used to, but after the initial urge to add punctuation where needed subsides the story soon picks up into another character defining moment for the boy or a critical event in the relationship.

To kill or not to kill scenarios are a plenty and defeated moments where they just stop and ask; what are we carrying on for? Why?

Well thought out and beautiful metaphors propel The Road into my successful random reads and proves second time’s the charm in this case. McCarthy utilizes the sometimes double-edged sword of flashbacks to perfection, revealing where the seldom mentioned mother stands in the darkness of this new place and an additional layer of empathy towards the characters. Too. Damn. Good. To be honest, initially I found myself siding with the dad, wishing his naive son would keep quiet and appreciate all that was being done for him. But soon I jumped ship and took on the child’s perspective. Simply a scared young boy looking for the good in a derelict wasteland he calls home, hoping he can find one with intentions as pure as his.

All the emotions!

Cormac.

Can I call you Cormac?

Please forgive me, I was a fool.

A damn fool.