Curse the Names – or – If I had that much loose change in my car I could retire

[singlepic id=138 w=320 h=240 float=right]Title: Curse the Names
Author: Robert Arellano
Publisher: Akashic Books
Year Published: 2012
Pages: 188

First Line: She took my wrist in her hands and placed it on the padded, tissue-papered armrest.

This book was read as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers group.

Curse the Names is an odd little book. The situation is fairly straight-forward: James Oberhelm is a journalist employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory whose 10 year marriage has turned stale. He’s bored with his job, bored with his wife, and bored with his life. In a somewhat terrified hope of an extra-marital hookup, he decides to meet a stranger at an old abandoned house. That’s when things go all weird… both with the story and the effect it had on me.

Part paranormal thriller, part psychological thriller, and part conspiracy theory thriller, Arellano does a good job at weaving a very tight storyline into only 188 pages. I especially like (and admire) his ability to wring the most out of very few words. I do think there were a few scenes that would have benefited from expansion (primarily with description) given their ultimate importance in the book, but that would have had ill-effects on the quick pacing necessary for this kind of novel.

What kept me going through most of it was that it was told in the past-tense. I assumed I was going to get some kind of resolution to… something. But with 30 pages remaining, Arellano shifts to first person present, and all hope of any kind of resolution quickly fades away as the narrative shifts to one buried in the psychosis of the protagonist. While I don’t need everything handed to me wrapped in a neat little bow, I do need something that lets me know the last 158 pages is actually going to mean something. Instead, I was left wondering not just about the story lines and potential causes of all this disaster that has fallen upon poor, hapless, drunken James, but, because the story itself has shifted into the present tense, I found myself questioning even the few things I “knew” to be true from earlier in the book. The shift in tense was quite subtle and extremely well done (especially the specific point at which it occurs), but ultimately I think it lessened the overall impact by casting everything that happened into doubt and eliminating any kind of satisfactory resolution.

Most important, though, and from which everything else stems, I found James’ drug and booze habits forced and cliche. Rich, bored, and unhappy, a once-brilliant writer turns addict and his life falls apart in a psychotropic haze. His apathy makes him an unlikeable narrator, and his drug-addled decisions and observations make him unreliable narrator. I found his characterization, and everyone else’s, to be rather shallow and steadfast with little growth or development of any kind. While it’s a perfectly valid choice to remain steadfast and keep making the same mistakes time and again, it becomes stale and predictable, which is my overall impression of not just James, but the novel as a whole.

At the end of the day, Curse the Names felt incomplete to me… incomplete storylines, incomplete character development, incomplete settings.

As a humorous side-note (to me, anyway), I’ve never seen anyone “scavenge” as much change from “the cracks” of car seats as James Oberhelm. I bet I couldn’t come up with even a 10th of what he did, and I’ve owned my junker for nearly a decade.

Three Little Words

Title: Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption cot-can_pc
Authors: Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Year Published: 2009
Pages: 298

First Line (of Prologue): Ronald Cotton stands a few rows behind Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, watching as she cranes her head through the crowd, looking for him among the faces of the parents who have come to watch their children play soccer.

I’ll be blunt…

Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone remotely connected with the justice system.
Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone who has ever felt wronged.
Picking Cotton should be required reading for everyone who has ever felt remorse.
…or grief.
…or hate.
…or love.

1984. Burlington, NC. Jennifer Thompson is asleep when a man breaks in, wakes her, and then rapes her at knife-point. She gets a good look at him, though. She even talks to him before managing to run off to a neighbor’s house and call the police. At the station, the detective shows her pictures and she identifies Ronald Cotton as her attacker. She then picks him out of a lineup, absolutely sure that he was the man who broke into her home and raped her. The DA’s case is dependent on her testimony, she does very well on the witness stand, and Cotton is found guilty. Thompson, convinced she has identified the correct man, slowly, painstakingly, begins to rebuild her life, while Cotton’s falls apart.

Because Ronald Cotton is innocent.

In Picking Cotton, Erin Torneo does a wonderful job in assembling what is essentially two memoirs into one cohesive, and at times gut wrenching, whole. The first section belongs to Jennifer, and she tells her story in her own words, from her own point of view. From the time of the rape until Ronald is found guilty, Jennifer analyzes not just the crime, but the effect the crime had upon her family, her fiancé, and her own state of mind. The second section is devoted to Ronald’s point of view from the moment he learns he is a person of interest through his 11 years in prison.

While both of these sections are strong on their own, they pale in comparison to the third, where Torneo weaves alternating viewpoints, chapter by chapter, as the separate stories of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson (by this time she’s actually Thompson-Cannino with 3 children and an adoring husband) spiral closer and closer together. Beginning in 1995 with Ronald’s request for the newly discovered DNA tests to be performed on the evidence from his case, Cotton and Thompson are on a collision course that redefines both their lives. When the test comes back, Cotton’s verdict is the 23rd overturned by the use of DNA testing. And just like in 1984 with the original trial, Jennifer and Ronald’s worlds are turned upside-down once again.

This final section is one of the most powerful stories, and some of the most powerful writing, I have read in the last five or ten years. I quite literally could not put it down and read the last 100 or so pages in a single sitting. Just like in the three-act structure of some fiction novels, this is where everything comes to a head… where Ronald slowly begins to find his feet… where, wracked with guilt and grief, Jennifer slowly begins to come a bit unglued… where, at long last, Ronald and Jennifer finally sit down face to face… and where Ronald says…

“I forgive you” (244)…

…and starts Jennifer down the path to true healing.

I can’t recommend Picking Cotton enough. It isn’t a perfect book by any means (in fact, I think the absence of a 3rd PoV narrative, that of Mike Gauldin, the original police detective, is a glaring oversight), but any book that moves me to tears and teaches me a thing or three about compassion, forgiveness, and hope is worthy of my praise.

RIP 2011 – Most Popular Posts of the Year

Honorable Mention (at #12 on the list, which both cracks me up and makes me very, very sad): Culture Clash, or How an English Teacher Sees Your World of Warcraft Post (20 February 2010)

10. Scrivener (2 November 2011)

9. Failure Is Just a Point of View (22 October 2011)

8. Why I Ride – or – It’s All a Load of Crap (10 September 2011)

7. Trip Routing: Google Maps (15 January 2011)

6. An Abrupt End to Summer (15 July 2011)

5. Book Review: Hint Fiction (8 January 2011)

4. Short Story Club – “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (4 July 2010)

3. DragonRealms (2 June 2010)

2. Review: The Dune Series by Frank Hebert (15 September 2007)

1. Trip Routing: Mapquest (23 October 2010)

The Children of Hurin

Title: The Children of Hurin
Author: J. R. R. Tolkien
Editor: Christopher Tolkien
Introduction: Christopher Tolkien
Illustrations: Alan Lee
Year Published: 2007
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 313

First Line (of the story): Hador Goldenhead was a lord of the Edain and well-beloved by the Eldar.

First, a quick summary…

Hurin is Mankind’s greatest warrior. He is captured by Morgoth, interrogated, and tortured. When he does not break, Morgoth curses Hurin’s family:

But upon all whom you love my thought shall weigh as a cloud of Doom, and it shall bring them down into darkness and despair. Wherever they go, evil shall arise. Whenever they speak, their words shall bring ill counsel. Whatsoever they do shall turn against them. They shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.

The story then focuses on the trials and tribulations of Turin.

The Children of Hurin, set some 6,000 years before the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is not for everyone. Its sparse, dry style is more similar to The Silmarillion that The Lord of the Rings, and that alone will turn off casual fans of Middle Earth. The other, and much more prominent, characteristic that will drive some readers mad is the very structure of the narrative itself.

In the introduction (a wonderful look into the creation of this particular narrative), Christopher Tolkien details the processes involved in piecing The Children of Hurin together from his father’s notes. The story of Hurin and his children, Turin and Nienor, has been told in bits and pieces in several publications, including The Silmarillion, but this is the first time that it has been assembled into a single narrative. Unfortunately, the dedication that Christopher showed in remaining true to JRRs notes (he explains in the introduction that he made no changes to the texts other than a few grammatical and transitional edits) leaves this particular tale seeming a bit like a skeleton with no flesh.

The story itself is wonderful, but there is precious little of the “in-between” kind of detail that makes The Hobbit and the LOTR trilogy such entertaining reads. Instead, the narrative seems extremely passive in its action, focusing more on the summary of events and less on the actual events themselves. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the fall of Nargothand, but all in all I found the narrative to be slow and plodding with very little variance of pace.

Also, make no mistake about this being a Hobbit-esque “and they lived happily ever after” type of tale. This is a tragedy. It’s dark, it’s depressing, and tears will be shed. Where victory was tempered with sacrifice in LOTR, TCOH is about pride, sin, revenge, and destruction. In fact, there are at least two very different ways to look at the “hero” of TCOH (Turin, son of Hurin), and neither one relieves the overall feelings of finality and fatality encompassing the story.

This is, I think, one of the wonderful things about TCOH. It is a new look at the evil faced by the inhabitants of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. When put in perspective of his universe, TCOH adds a level of complexity to all of the stories, particularly LOTR. This is the type life that Aragorn and all the rest are fighting against. This is the evil that is threatening all the races of Middle Earth. No matter how strong the effort, no matter how courageous the struggle, Turin simply cannot break himself free from the shadow of his father and the curse leveled against him and his sister by Morgoth.

Another wonderful little surprise is the collection of illustrations scattered throughout the narrative by Alan Lee. They are, in a word, gorgeous. Lee achieved a wonderful balance with his detail. Rather than take a firm stance on exactly what something looks like, his illustrations  aid the imagination rather than eliminate it from the reading process. Considering the sparseness of the narrative, this was, I think, an essential addition to the book and goes a long way in helping the reader envision both the action and the settings of the story.

So is The Children of Hurin worth the read? That depends, I think. If you are a fan of Tolkien’s extraordinary world-building talents, then I think this comes very close to being a must-read kind of story, especially if you’ve managed to read The Silmarillion. If you want an ultimately feel-good story with hobbits and honorable knights, then this probably isn’t a book for you. Regardless, The Children of Hurin is an important addition to the saga of Middle Earth, and Christopher Tolkien did a remarkable job in assembling a complete narrative from several different sources.