Book Reviews

Blasphemy: A Rapid Fire Review

Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman Alexie (2012) Find it on Bookshop

Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories by Sherman AlexieI’ve read several of Alexie’s earlier story collections as well as his novels Flight, Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie is an incredibly talented writer shining a light onto a part of America’s culture that is very rarely seen in modern literature.

That said, his work is never easy to take filled with wasted potential, sadness and a pervasive sense of everything that an entire culture has lost thanks to Western expansion and modernization. It is a bleak, cold world. It is bleaker and colder if you are an Indian in an Alexie story.

While Alexie provides some moments of whimsy and wonder, his stories are generally heavy. Clocking in at 480 pages Blasphemy is even heavier than earlier collection or novels. It is also not at all indicative of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian so if you’re expecting that kind of story here just walk away now.

The collection is comprised of new and older stories so it’s a nice introduction to Alexie except that most of my favorite stories (“Somebody Kept Saying Powwow”, “Distances”, “Saint Junior”, “A Good Story”) are not found in this collection though other familiar ones including “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and “The Toughest Indian in the World” do appear.

My favorite of Alexie’s collections is either The Business of Fancydancing or The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. They were shorter, more balanced collections that tempered the inherent sadness of many stories with lighter stories of hope and sometimes even redemption. Even the characters who didn’t get that happy ending had a certain dignity–something the felt lacking to me in this collection.

Book Reviews

The Business of Fancydancing: A review

The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems by Sherman AlexieThe Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems
(1992) by Sherman Alexie (Find it on Bookshop.)

After reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian last summer, I decided to work my way through Alexie’s oeuvre since I had already also read and enjoyed Reservation Blues. Two short story collections and one novel later, I was done. Not in that my task was completed but in that I couldn’t take anymore. Then The Business of Fancydancing (1991) came into my possession after waiting about six months for it. Unwilling to let the book go after waiting so long for it, I decided to see what the first page was like. Ten hours later I had finished it.

The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems is Alexie’s first published work. As the subtitle suggests, the book is considered a collection of stories and poems. However, since most of the stories are less than five pages I think a fair argument could be made that the five stories are actually prose poems instead of stories. That might just be me though.

Like any of Alexie’s other writing, this collection includes instances of beauty as well as sadness. In the opening story “Travels” a hungry youth is told to make a jam sandwich by taking two slices of bread and jamming them together (unless a wish sandwich is more to his liking). This image recurs often in the collection.

After reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, I must admit I had my doubts about Alexie’s short stories–they never seemed as engaging as his novels. That isn’t a problem here even though all of the stories are much shorter than anything found in his later collections. Very like the poems, Alexie’s stories here are bare bones. Instead of full stories (in the sense of having a conventional plot) most are vignettes painting brief, eloquent pictures of what life can mean for a Spokane Indian on and off the reservation.

The bulk of The Business of Fancydancing is comprised of poems. The English major in my wants to make some kind of comparison to illustrate what these poems are like, but no quick comparisons come to mind. Suffice it say, the lines are long and the poems deeply grounded in the concrete. One of my favorites in the collection is “Distances” which is literally a series of vignettes along with aphorisms like “Remember this: ‘Electricity is lightning pretending to be permanent.'”

Familiar characters who turn up in one of Alexie’s later story collections as well as Reservation Blues also make their first appearances here. Thomas Builds-The-Fire, a personal favorite, even has a story all to himself.

I don’t know how illustrative this book is of Alexie’s current style since his latest work has been novels, but that detail aside The Business of Fancydancing is a superb collection of poetry and serves as a good introduction to Sherman Alexie and his unique style/themes without the visceral, harsh details so often found in his newer writing.

Book Reviews

Flight: a review

Flight coverPublished in 2007, Flight is one of Sherman Alexie’s more recent novels. Find it on Bookshop. His critically acclaimed YA debut The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian came out a few months after Flight‘s publication. Together these novels illustrate how teen narrators can comfortably inhabit both adult and young adult novels. More about that later.

The book starts with a simple request from the narrator: “Call me Zits. Everybody calls me Zits.” In other words, the narrator has no name. Given the structure of the novel, this choice actually works. Throughout the story, Zits is rarely called by any kind of name that would be termed as his own. The opening line also tells readers everything they need to know about Zits. Specifically that this fifteen-year-old half-Irish, half-Indian kid doesn’t think enough of himself to bother using his own name. Worse, Zits is pretty sure no one else thinks much better of him.

Orphaned at six and in foster care since he was ten, Zits has slipped through the cracks and is truly a lost soul. After an unceremonious exit from his twentieth foster home and his latest stint in the kid jail in Seattle’s Central District, Zits starts to think that maybe he doesn’t really need a family. Maybe what he needs is some kind of revenge.

But things don’t go as planned. Instead of punishing the white people who are abstractly responsible for his present situation, Zits finds himself on a time-traveling, body-shifting quest for redemption and understanding.

Zits’ first “stop” is inside the body of a white FBI agent during the civil rights era in Red River, Idaho. From there he moves to the Indian camp at the center of Custer’s Last Stand, then a nineteenth century soldier, a modern pilot with his own variety of demons and, finally, Zits finds himself in a body more familiar than he’d like to admit.

As many other reviewers are quick to point out, Flight is Alexie’s first novel in ten years. Unlike previous works, where characters and plots intersected (even in his short stories), this novel remains disjointed. It’s the kind of book that could easily be seen as a grouping of short stories. Except that each segment follows Zits’ spiritual evolution. For this reason, the novel is obviously much more character driven than plot driven. But Alexie makes it work.

I consider Flight to be adult fiction. Zits is a teen, so it could be YA, but that fact is largely irrelevant to the main machinations of the novel–which is why it’s an adult book but “True Diary” whose narrator is close to Zits’ age is a YA book.

Finally, a word on the ending of the novel: It’s optimistic. There is some talk that the ending is too up, that things come together a bit too easily. In terms of the plot that could be true although I’m more of a mind that the ending was already in the works from the beginning (the fact that “The wounded always recognize the wounded” and other events support me in this claim).

Some have claimed that the happy ending might be reason to suggest that Flight is a YA book because only a book written for teens would have such an abrupt ending. That’s bogus. This is an adult book that teens can enjoy and the ending doesn’t change that. After reading this novel it becomes clear that Zits has been through a lot. Way more than any fifteen-year-old should have to take. For Alexie to end the novel in any other way would have been a slap in the face both for Zits and the readers invested in his fate.

Flight is a really quick read (I finished it in a day) and entertaining throughout. The novel doesn’t have the depth of character found in Reservation Blues or “True Diary” but the story remains different enough from Alexie’s usual work to make Flight a refreshing departure nonetheless.

Possible Pairings: Leverage by Joshua Cohen, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones, I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga

Book Reviews

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven: A review

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman AlexieThe Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) is one of Sherman Alexie’s first collections of short stories.

Find it on Bookshop.

The collection deals with the lives and troubles of Indian in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation. The stories also deal with characters that Alexie would later revisit in his novel Reservation Blues (specifically, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor, and Junior).

In a 1996 interview with Tomson Highway, Alexie explains a bit about the title of this collection:

“Kemosabe in Apache means “idiot,” as Tonto in Spanish means “idiot.” They were calling each other “idiot” all those years; and they both were, so it worked out. It’s always going to be antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people. I think the theme of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is universal.”

This universal theme permeates many of Alexie’s stories here and in his other writings. The stories take a fresh, sometimes painful, look at life for modern Indians on the Spokane Reservation. Alcoholism, violence, and death all permeate this collection. At the same time, Alexie brings an extreme level of humor and compassion to these characters, making their hardships bearable to the reader.

The stories here mostly interconnect, referring to the same events or at least the same characters, creating a narrative that almost flows between stories. Exceptions to this flow include “Distances.” “Witnesses, Secret and Not” and “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” also seem disconnected but remain similar in style to the rest of the collection. A follow up to The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of short stories and poems, the stories in this collection alternate between a poetic style and a more conventional prose style.

The characters in these stories have not reached “happily ever after,” it is not clear if they will ever get there. Sometimes, the characters are at fault for these failures. At other times they are victims of circumstances far beyond their control. Regardless of the reason, Alexie portrays his characters with compassion and the hope that they will one day succeed. Even Victor, a drunk continuously falling off the wagon, and Lester FallsApart (whose name might say everything) are presented with a certain dignity and afforded a degree of respect throughout the stories.

When writing about such modern problems as car wrecks and alcoholism, there is always the risk of being too serious, too tragic. In “A Good Story” Alexie acknowledges this fact when his self-proclaimed storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, goes out of his way to tell a happy story.

Other stories remain less concerned with themes discussed and instead are focused on presenting rich narratives. One favorite is “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” in which Victor and his friend watch reservation life from their porch while drinking Diet Pepsis. However, bar none, the best stories in this collection are the title story and “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow.” Both stories are as evocative and compelling as any novel. Furthermore, in each story Alexie creates characters that are unique, well-developed and completely absorbing–no easy feat for stories of around ten pages.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven does two important things. First, it illustrates Sherman Alexie’s wide range of talents as a writer. Second, it tells a lot of good stories.

Book Reviews

The Toughest Indian in the World: A review

The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman AlexieThe Toughest Indian in the World (2001) is one of Sherman Alexie’s collections of short stories.

Find it on Bookshop.

It comes before his most recent collection (Ten Little Indians) but after The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which features many of the characters who would later appear in Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues). It is also the first one I read. Unfortunately, I feel like it may not have been the best first choice.

Alexie is a wonderful writer, of whom I am a huge fan. His writings usually revolve around the lives of various Indian (“bow and arrow not dot on the head”) characters and their complicated feelings about the reservation they love while being desperate to get away from it. This collection of stories follows a similar theme.

The thing about short stories is they’re short. Writers only have a limited amount of time to explain everything and to develop characters. I don’t know how other readers feel, but I’m of a mind that I like Alexie better as a novelist because there is more time to get to know his unique characters and understand his (at times) complex plots. I found The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to be more engaging because different stories clearly refer to the same characters–making them more dimensional.

Back to this collection:

As is true with any talented writer, Alexie does have some gems here. “Saint Junior,” “One Good Man,” and “South by Southwest” are especial favorites of this reviewer possibly because these stories most resemble the combination of acerbic humor and gravity common to Alexie’s novels. To take “Saint Junior” as an example: Alexie examines the relationship between a married couple who met at “Saint Junior” university and continue to choose each other every day. In the story, the husband goes to take his SAT’s wearing a traditional dance costume while, later in the story, his wife preserves the tribal tradition of making Salmon mush.

These stories are not passive. If anything, they are visceral. This collection combines elements of magical realism with painfully real moments of sadness and hardship in the lives of Alexie’s modern Indian characters.

The main problem I saw with this collection is that it remained distractingly distant. Most protagonists go unnamed, sometimes barely described, which makes it difficult to connect with either the characters or their stories. Worse, the stories alternate between nearly absorbing to disturbingly jarring. “The Sin Eaters” hauntingly presents an apocalyptic world where Indians are put through their own kind of Holocaust. This story is angry and, no doubt, important. But by the end it is too angry and too horrific, so that it became a chore to read the remainder of the book for fear of what other catastrophes it might describe.

Any fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing will want to read through The Toughest Indian in the World to get a better sense of Alexie’s work on the whole. That said, readers unfamiliar with Alexie would be better off beginning with one of his novels or perhaps a different story collection.

Book Reviews

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: A Review

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman AlexieThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007) is the first book written by Sherman Alexie (illustrated by Ellen Forney) specifically for a young adult audience.

Find it on Bookshop.

I finished it in two days but have been holding onto my copy because I’ve been having a hard time articulating why I might love this book.

If you have read anything by Alexie, you know that he writes about life on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington. In Reservation Blues Alexie described the misadventures of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and his friends as they try to start a band (and deal with the relative fame that follows). Like Reservation Blues, this novel is filled with equal parts humor and tragedy along with some memorable characters thrown in to taste. What surprised me about Diary is that it is also more biting that Reservation Blues. At times Alexie’s descriptions of white-Indian relations and life on the rez are so scathing that they’re painful to read. And yet . . . I couldn’t put the book down.

Now that you are sufficiently intrigued, let’s talk about the plot.

This story revolves around Arnold “Junior” Spirit, his family and his best friend, Rowdy. We join Arnold at the beginning of the novel at the age of 14. Born with a variety of physical ailments, Arnold is used to being picked on. He doesn’t mind, though, because he knows he has his art and his intelligence and his family. Things get complicated for Arnold when he realizes that he has to leave the reservation in order to get a good education and succeed where most of his family and friends have failed. So Arnold starts going to the all-white school in a neighboring all-white town.

As the story progresses, Arnold grapples with his decision and trying to figure out his identity in his new surroundings. With the additions of love, rivalry, and basketball Alexie has enough twists to keep the most impatient readers enthralled. The illustrations by Ellen Forney also really add to the text.

In Reservation Blues and some of his other works, Alexie brings up the issue of alcoholism and heavy drinking on the reservation. The subject comes up again here. I can’t say that I understand heavy drinking as a past time in general–it remains equally perplexing here. At the same time, Alexie aptly shows the damage that one too many bottles of . . . whatever . . . can cause, which is part of why I think this novel is really important.

But you won’t be reading this book just because I happen to think it’s important. No. I expect that you will find yourself charmed by Arnold and his unique outlook on life and opportunity. I know I did.

Like Alexie’s other writing, this book is poetic and beautiful but still razor sharp.

When I finished reading, I didn’t know what to say–so much so that I wanted to immediately re-read it. (It’s the kind of book that you can do that with.) I think that’s the best response you can have to a book: when it’s so good it leaves you speechless.

Possible Pairings: Dear Martin by Nic Stone