Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Nebraska Literary Road Trip

At the Nebraska-Kansas border.  Webster County, NE
To celebrate my birthday last week I decided to take a literary road trip to Nebraska.  I'm from Illinois, but have spent a lot of time in Nebraska visiting family & friends. We went at least once a year while I was growing up and the state has always seemed like a second home to me. I also attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for my masters in the early 1990s.

During the two years that I lived in Lincoln I took a weekly, day-long road trip.  If I couldn't swing a whole day, I'd at least go for a few hours to blow the cobwebs of a week's worth of academic work from my brain-housing-group.  I'd head out--usually west or north--and drive until it felt like it was time to turn around and head home.  No maps.  No time table.  No list of things to see.  I'd just drive down roads, turning here and there as the mood struck me and stop at interesting places along the way.  I never tired of the landscape and took pleasure in watching the changes from season to season.

Most people consider Nebraska as nothing more than fly-over country or they complain that driving through it is the pain you experience before getting to the pleasure of the Rockies, but I absolutely love the Nebraska landscape.  I always tell friends to get off of the interstate, drive a country road, and really see the landscape.  But although they look, most people can't "see" the landscape in an appreciative light.  Scholars and writers have explained how early explorers and more recent visitors to the plains and prairies can't really see the landscape because they compare it to their own more familiar landscape and judge the new landscape as lacking those things that they appreciate about their own, preferred landscape.

Reno, on the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Range.
After Lincoln, I moved to Reno, NV.  One day when driving home from somewhere I realized that I was angry and frustrated.  I didn't know why.  I'd had a perfectly good day, things in my life were going well.  I then had a flash of insight and realized that I found the mountains to be rather irksome.  I appreciated the beauty of the mountains and was excited to live there, but realized that I'd been feeling boxed in, a bit claustrophobic.  I never saw the horizon.  I never really saw the sun set.  It just went behind the mountains and eventually it got dark.  I no longer got to see the big red globe of fire sinking in the distance. When I was sharing my realization with a friend, she told me about how her daughter, who'd grown up in Reno, went to Nebraska and felt completely naked and exposed in that landscape.

Do you have a preferred landscape?  Is there a landscape that you find psychologically unsettling?

I needed a Nebraska landscape-fix and so last week I took four days off and headed west.  I had a few places that I wanted to see again such as Red Cloud, Willa Cather's childhood hometown, and a couple new places like Bess Streeter Aldrich's home in Elmwood.  They'd just opened Aldrich's home to tours before I moved from Lincoln to Reno, and I'd never made it there when the house was open.  It was nice to finally go inside and do more than peek in the windows.

For the rest of the month of March I'll post the book-related highlights from my trip.  In addition to Cather's and Aldrich's hometowns, I visited libraries in Beatrice, Hastings, Plattsmouth, and Red Cloud and one of my old favorite bookstores, Bluestem Books in Lincoln, and (thanks to the recommendation of my friend Missy) a new favorite bookstore, The Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City, IA.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kill Zone: A Sniper Novel

Kill Zone was written by retired Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Jack Coughlin with some help from Donald A. Davis. It’s one of those books that I’ve come across several times over the years and always kept it at the back of my mind for another day.  That day finally came, a day when I wanted some guaranteed action packed reading with a big dose of realism. This book certainly delivered.

The hero of Kill Zone is Gunnery Sergeant Kyle Swanson, a top-notch Marine sniper who often gets loaned out to the CIA for top-secret special assignments.  At the beginning of the book Swanson is on a luxury yacht in the Mediterranean with his girlfriend, Shari Towne. Shari is not only gorgeous, she's a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, currently assigned to national security and working at the White House. She's considered a brilliant intelligence officer. The yacht is owned by Sir Geoffrey Cornwell, an old friend of Swanson's and an arms maker who is putting on a demonstration of his top secret sniper rifle for potential financial investors that he's wining and dining.

While everyone is happily floating on the yacht, powerful people back in the States are putting their plan in action to create a New America which revolves around the privatization of the military. Their first step is to convince the President and the American public that privatizing the American military is the best way to ensure the safety of America from terrorists.  In order to do that they plan to set-up the US military to show it as ineffectual and inept compared to private forces. They have small and large teams all over the world that are ready to act in a moment’s notice.  The people who comprise these groups are often former military personnel who now work for the highest bidder.

They kidnap an American General who was scheduled to speak against privatization at a congressional committee meeting and murder a Senator who is also against privatization.  Soon they will bomb malls, schools, and other public places in four cities around the country to inflict so much chaos, fear, and death that the American public will demand privatization since the U.S. military couldn't protect them.  Swanson and Towne are called back to work due to the emergency of the general’s kidnapping.

The Marines sent in to rescue the general from the kidnappers are going to be ambushed and made to look incompetent.  However, before the ambush happens a freak wind sweeps across the desert and slams the two rescue helicopters together.  All of the Marines inside die, except for Swanson, who is thrown from his helicopter and survives. He continues on with his mission using his buddy Cornwell's high tech sniper rifle. Seeing how Swanson operates is pretty cool and probably the reason most people pick up the book.

I had hoped that the character of Shari Towne would end up being a kick ass naval officer, but she doesn't.  Even the good guys refer to her as "the girl" at one point. The only women who is regularly part of the action or takes risks is playing for the bad guys and even she ends up crying in her hanky and running away with her tail between her legs in the end.  She isn't even considered enough of a threat for the main bad guy to kill to ensure she doesn't talk.  Had her character been a male, I'm thinking he would have been killed to tie up the loose ends.  But I have to credit Coughlin for including women characters that at least do more than sleep with and then betray men as is often the case in military novels.

Kill Zone is a solid read if you’re looking for a military action book. There are high-stakes, bravery, lots of action scenes, and you feel like you're there with Swanson in enemy territory as he carries out his mission.

St. Martin's Paperbacks, December 2008
352 pages

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Will Grayson, Will Grayson

What a great gay book!  I wish there were gay books like this to read when I was a teen.  The first gay novel I read was when I was 18.  I was in the Marines and a friend in the barracks loaned me a copy of Rita Mae Brown latest book, Sudden Death, which I kept locked up in my wall locker when I wasn't home and then only read when my roommates weren't around and the door was locked.  It was a relief to return the incriminating book when I was finished.  I'm so thankful times have changed.

John Green and David Levithan have written an excellent novel that spent some time on The New York Times best-seller list when it was released last April.  I hope it finds an even bigger audience when it's released in paperback on April 5, 2011.

I first heard about the book on Lee Wind's fabulous blog I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?  After seeing it there I noticed it on display at just about every bookstore I went into last spring/summer.  So I put it on my to be read list for this year and after a short wait was able to download it as an eBook from my public library.

I loved, loved, loved the book.  It is funny and serious and took me back (in some ways) to my own snarky high school years and even helped me see the teens that are currently in my life at a slightly different angle.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is the story of two boys who share the name Will Grayson.  One is gay, one is straight. They both have their own challenges and their own friends (sort of) and one day they unexpectedly meet under realistic circumstances in the strangest of ways.  One Will is from Evanston, IL and the other from Naperville, IL.

Prior to the boys' unexpected meeting one night in Chicago, we get pieces of what their daily lives are like. The novel has two narrators whose stories are told in alternating chapters.  To help the reader keep things, um, straight, one Will's chapters are all in lower case (Naperville Will) and the other uses conventional capitalization for names, etc (Evanston Will).  Yes, if you're wondering, e.e. cummings is mentioned in the novel.  The Wills and their friends are wracked with the pains and angsts of American teenager-hood.  And like all teenagers, they are unique as well.

Another major character, and perhaps the one who'll steal the show for some readers, is Tiny Cooper, Evanston Will's big, gay, and very out friend who is the star of their lame football team.  The not-so-tiny Tiny has written a musical about his life, but along the way he realizes its not about him.  Much of the action of the novel revolves around the production of Tiny's play and there are two (or more) budding romances: one gay, one straight. Was the novel being written before or after Glee's success?  I don't know.  But don't avoid or read Will Grayson, Will Grayson because of its Glee-like high school musical connections; it is entirely its own animal.
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