The Outlaw Life

running, reading, blogging, loving

[23] “The Urban Coop”


Zydo had been dehydrated and confused. He’d snapped when they lifted him into their boat. Desperate and lonely, he had swum a mile in to the open sea.

I kind of have this problem where I personify my animals to, like, an unhealthy degree. I wonder if Mrs. Megan Mayhew Bergman and I don’t share some of this same trait. “The Urban Coop”, the story that lies about half-way through Birds of a Lesser Paradise, is a story about what happens when we, in a single second, perform an action we end up greatly regretting. It’s also a story about finding peace where you’re at, not where you may one day be. And it’s a story about chickens. And urban farming. EGADS, it’s a story that was basically written with a giant blinking sign calling my name.

Like all the stories from the collection we’ve talked about thus far, a majority of this story revolves around a couple, their animals, and the issue of fertility, motherhood, and parenting. Mac and his wife, the narrator of our story, own a neighborhood garden, keep chickens in an urban coop, and badly want a child, although they’re unable to conceive. One day, when out on the boat, some friends come along and Mac and our narrator leave their dog Zydo on their boat while they leave. When they return, Zydo is gone. And suddenly or narrator doesn’t know if she can trust Mac anymore, herself anymore, or parents anywhere anymore. Describing the plot makes the story sound so much more simple than it is – a running theme with Mrs. Bergman’s stories, I’ve noticed.

Getting on to some of the things I did and didn’t like, the thought that always pops back in to my head when I think of this story is “Oh yeah, that one at the Merc.” Let me explain, for those not from Lawrence/the Kansas area, or for those who don’t give some of their favorite grocery stores adorable nicknames. The Merc is the affectionate moniker for The Community Mercantile, a locally sourced co-op in Lawrence that offers local organic meat, produce, and other fare. It’s also got a community garden, gives back to the community through initiatives, and, lets be honest, draws in a certain kind of shopper. And it’s this shopper (a camp in which I would place myself most firmly) whom “The Urban Coop” so directly brings in to light. It wasn’t the main focus of the story, but in a collection that covers our connection to nature as its primary premise, I thought Mayhew-Bergman did a great job personifying this whole culture that seems to exist in our society of trendy environmentalism, in ne0-foodies picking up unpronouncable ingredients because, well, they look cool in the basket. Maybe I’m being too cynical – I will say that I believe I’m being more cynical than the characters within the story. And, although this entire paragraph is ranty, I will say that there’s some great social commentary on urban eco-living wrapped up in this beautiful little story.

This story wasn’t my favorite, other than the aspects I mentioned earlier. I mostly decided to write about it because, in addition to the above, there is also an awesome paragraph on chickens. Which I would someday like to own.

I kept an urban coop in the backyard stocked with silkie bantams. An ornamental breed, they produced tiny eggs and paraded around the coop like Solid Gold dancers, their legs ensconced in black feathered pantaloons, heads topped with Afr0-shaped tufts.

SolidGoldDancers  versus    15872_1_chick_008

Yeah, I can see that.

Rating: Okay


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[15] “The Years of my Birth”

Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich writes absolutely AMAZING yet amazingly simple to understand short stories, usually concerning Native American family and culture. “Years” tells the story of a woman who, crushed in the womb by her twin, is cast off as a cripple, given up by her white family. Adopted by her Native American nurse and raised alongside others on the reservation, the most touching aspect of the entire story is how our narrator builds for herself an entirely new family after being so cruelly rejected by her biological one.

The color imagery of the color and confusion that is attached to the color white (such as when she’s in the all white room of the institution after the state removes her from her adopted home, and all she can do is scream and cry because of how empty the color makes her feel). It’s especially interesting considering that our main character is a white disabled woman created from the mind of a Native American author. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this social commentary through color symbolism, but I think that’s the subtle force of the story – to have to, as readers, suss out the difference in this narrator’s life opinions because of not just her skin color, but the skin color of her family and the skin color of those she was born to.

To be honest, the ending of the story left be at a bit of a loss for words. I’m not sure what to do with the narrator’s biological brother in need of a kidney but laughing manically in her face because she suggests that he may owe her something if she donates an organ to him. What I do know, though, is that the underlying feelings of rage and indifference in the story is  visceral, a punch in the emotional gut. I’m not sure that the right question to ask is “why”. Erdrich does a delightful job with her direct diction and treatment of cultural conflict.

I got this story from America’s Best Non-Required Reading 2012, which if you don’t own you should – if for no other reason than Ray Bradbury dictated the introduction, and it was one of the last things this  genius mind ‘wrote’ before he passed away.

Story Rating: Okay

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[11] Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore


‘I did not know people your age still read books,’ Penumbra says. He raises an eyebrow. ‘I was under the impression the read everything on their mobile phones.’

Clay Jannon is a young man of the Google age who, after losing his job marketing the start-up NewBagel, gets a job working the overnight shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore. There, a significant part of his job is to keep track of all the people who come into the shop – what they look like, what they buy (or borrow!), and what their mental state is. Soon, noticing an number of oddities about the job, the shop, and the clientele, and with the help of a tech-savvy roommate, rich best friend, and computer-genius quasi-girlfriend, he discovers a secret code buried deep within the books of the store – as well as a loyal cult dedicated to unraveling the code. Soon, Clay and his friends are harnessing the full power of Google, the expertise of librarians, and 15th century letter punches, to unravel the secrets of eternity. It’s an ancient tale spurred by the full reaches of contemporary technological power.

The shelves were packed close together, and it felts like I was standing at the border of a forest – not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvania forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.

One of the more stand-out things about this novel is the really beautiful and philosophical nature of technology. Not only is Google the most used search engine, but to hear Robin Sloan describe it, the people there are also pushing the boundaries of human existence. While I don’t believe I’m one of those “OHMIGOD FACEBOOK AND THE INTERWEBZ IS JUST THE BEST THANG EVA” people, but as this book points out, technology gives us the chance to question how we define and conceptualize what it means to be immortal, how we define time and space relative to factors like our instantaneous ability to share information over the internet, and what happens when classic and modern meet (ebooks? audiobooks? Goodreads and Librarything? Podcasts?)

To be honest, I wasn’t super thrilled with the actual plot of this book – weird book cults and rouge Google employees sounds good on the surface and is just…awkward on the page. I loved the scenes at Google (and naievely hope that they’re all true), and by far my favorite character is Kat Potente, the female Google goddess who, while expectedly pixie-like and psuedo-individualistic, is still totally adorable. All in all, the ideas in this book were way more exciting than the plot or process of reading the book itself.

Remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. A bell above the door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.

Rating: Okay

PS (because I’m me and I can’t kind of talk about philosophy – or do a post in general ever – without my favorite philosoraptor EVER):


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[07] The Fault in Our Stars


‘All salvation is temporary,’ Augustus shot back. ‘I bought them a minute. Maybe that’s the minute that buys them an hour that buys them a year. No one’s going to buy them forever, Hazel Grace, but my life bought them a minute. And that’s not nothing.’

Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace are both 17 years old, and both have cancer. They meet one another one week at a support group, and begin the process of changing each others lives. Augustus uses his Make a Wish to take Hazel to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author, to get questions about her favorite book answered. The author is a lout, drunk and cruel, and the two leave the authors house without any answers. Their trip isn’t wasted, however: they fall in love, have sex, and Gus tells Hazel he’s no longer in remission.

Once they’re back in the States, Gus quickly goes from bad to worse, and he has to leave Hazel behind. But not before offering Hazel’s favorite author a little redemption, and not without leaving Hazel a eulogy worthy of both her and Augustus.

You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile.

The kids in this book are all smart. Like, smart talkers in the vein of The Gilmore Girls or Dawson’s Creek. And while normally this annoys me to no end, I felt here it bordered on just possible enough that I enjoyed it – I found it endearing without being too obnoxious. However, although I really did love the characters, and felt myself being sucked in to the story, I’m not sure how I feel about the novel now that I’m on the other side of it. Of course it was romantic and sad and made me ‘le sigh’ – its a book about terns with cancer who fall in love. Its a well-written Lurlene McDaniels book. I also appreciated and loved the sense of humorous that John Green managed to keep alive (pun intended, obvs) throughout the book:

‘I don’t think you’re dying,’ I said. ‘I think you’ve just got a touch of cancer.’

But, for a book that spends a great deal of time and glib attention talking about stereotypical cancer books that heroize their children heroes, the book does essentially just that. Hazel and Augustus are ultimately the brave, kind, cancer-fighting people they mock; even if they do curse and have sex and make mean jokes about each other. The book makes some interesting differentiations between Hazel, who has always been a terminal patient, and Augustus, who went in to and came out of remission – how that difference effects their views, their hopes, and especially Augustus’s ceaseless obsession with feeling that he has to do something to make his life and death mean something.

Rating: Okay, with some Hell Yeah! bits

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[06] Tumbleweeds

Oh, Tumbleweeds. There you are, just out there, floating in the wind (cue wonky sad guitar music). Which is basically just my horrible metaphor for saying that this book took off STRONG, gathered a brambly bunch of steam, and then just rolled across the prairie kind of…meh.


Recently orphaned, eleven-year-old Cathy Benson feels she has been dropped into a cultural and intellectual wasteland when she is forced to move from her academically privileged life in California to the small town of Kersey in the Texas Panhandle where the sport of football reigns supreme. She is quickly taken under the unlikely wings of up-and-coming gridiron stars and classmates John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, orphans like herself, with whom she forms a friendship and eventual love triangle that will determine the course of the rest of their lives. Taking the three friends through their growing up years until their high school graduations when several tragic events uproot and break them apart, the novel expands to follow their careers and futures until they reunite in Kersey at forty years of age.

In the pursuit of complete mostly honest revelation, I mostly picked up this book because the book jacket talked about a super-smart girl who moved to Texas to grow up around some potentially not so smart individuals. And also because the book jacket is really, REALLY pretty. So, maybe not the best reasons to read a book, but it works. And for the first, like, sixty pages, I wasn’t at all regretting whatever reasons had led me to it.

Cathy Benson is a rather remarkable heroine, not because she silently bears her burdens a la Hester Prynne, but because she gets mad and pissed and ends up stuck in a life she didn’t intend – but she gets herself out of it. She makes due, she gets by, she isn’t the eternal victor. But she’s strong. And she’s determined. And, at the end of the book, she’s relieved of the confusion of her life and is rewarded for her experiences. Her two male counterparts are nice but obvious foils for one another (John is sweet and nice and caring, while TD is all tortured and dark and feels less-than: think Cory v. Sean, which is basically how I pictured them in my mind the whole time), and the tensions between the three are developed rather realistically, which was nice pacing to see take place in a book that’s essentially just one long love-triangle.

Keeping up with Dark Places, this is one of those books that kept me guessing as to the next plot point for a good majority of the book. The first big “GAH!” moment takes place about 1/4 of the way through the book (ask my husband – I literally, like, slammed the book shut and said “ohmygodohmygodohmygod” for, like, five straight minutes. And yes, I know you can’t really ask him. Just take my word for it, mmmkay) and from there the whole book operates on this level of “OH CHARACTERS! IF YOU ONLY KNEW THE TRUTH!” Which, of course, they never do, which really just amped up the engaging reading tension. It literally kept me turning the pages as quickly as my eyes could physically read them. But then I was just over it. Tumbleweeds is one of those books that just keeps throwing big “GAH” moments at you until they basically lose their effect – kind of like getting shot with one bullet, which hurts like a bitch, versus a million bullets, which really you probably won’t even feel after the first few.

That’s basically how I felt the last few 100 pages of the book or so. And I was just done. The book wrapped up in  way that felt satisfactory, the characters got what I felt like were their “just rewards”, and there were certain mysteries that were solved in a way that made me go “hmmmm”, but seriously? By the time I closed the book, I was wishing that the final 1/4 of the book had been about 100 pages and 3 big twists shorter. Over it.

Rating: Okay
PS: That GIF doesn’t really make sense. I know that. I don’t care. It’s my favorite GIF of all time.

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[02] Short Shot: “Signs and Symbols”

“Signs and Symbols” by Vladimir Nabokov is a short story by the famed writer of Lolita, a books I’ve read but will have to discuss another day because OH MY JESUS THE FEELINGS in that book. It’s mostly gross. And also fascinating. This story, however, is about an elderly Jewish husband and his wife who are on their way to visit their son in an asylum, worrying what to buy him for this birthday. Their son has an affliction where he delusionally believes that the objects around him are talking about him, accusing him, plotting against him. Because of this, the parents are having a hard time deciding what to buy him.

When the couple arrives at the hospital, they are told that their son tried again to kill himself last night, and so will be unable to visit with them today. The couple goes home, makes dinner, and the husband goes to bed. The wife stays up, looks at photographs, and plays cards. When the husband arises, the two have a cup of tea, discuss a plan to bring their son home, and are called several times by a young woman looking for “Charlie” at a wrong number. And that’s all that happens.

Flavorwire says that “Signs and Symbols” “is, perhaps, both a comment on the nature of insanity and the nature of the short story itself, with all its rules and strangeness and banality”, which I think is a really interesting way to come at the story. I do think that the most poignant portion of the story is the final paragraph or so in which a girl calls the couple several times at a wrong number – its the section of the story in which the reader is shown one of the most classic facets of insanity: the repetition of events and actions multiple times by the same actor, expecting different results. But I wouldn’t have thought to think of this story as some kind of allegory to the short story as a format. While I do agree that some of the ‘rules’ of writing successful short stories (I’m thinking largely of what Chekhov had to say on the subject) seem to be completely assinine, I do wonder if the very act of story creation isn’t a form of madness in and of itself. Creating stories asks us to look at everything around us and ask “what’s the story there”? It asks us to pull stories from in ourselves and outside ourselves and to marry them together into something potentially beautiful, potentially frightening, but ultimately something we deem “true”, even if not realistic or factual. The lines blur, and I think that’s the beauty at the heart of this story. It blurs the lines – between sane and insane, between parent and child, between fact and fiction.

“Referential mania,” the article had called it. In these very rare cases, the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.
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