Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

Stella Maris is a companion piece to The Passenger, both by Cormac McCarthy. The latter took great pains to position Alicia Western as an enigmatic, brilliant, and potentially insane character who happened to be the sister of Robert Western, The Passenger’s protagonist. In The Passenger, the reader experienced short vignettes of Alicia, often while being visited by “The Kid,” a supposed figment of her imagination. As The Passenger occurred in the early 1980s, Alicia was said to already be dead.

Stella Maris takes place in 1972, and Alicia is still very much alive. She has checked herself into Stella Maris, a mental health facility. The book itself is written in script format while using a back and forth conversation between Alicia and her doctor. As you probably know, McCarthy does not use quotation marks or apostrophes, and so this particular style could become confusing at times. However, overall, it proved fairly clear in regard to who was speaking.

First of all, I found the premise of the book very interesting. Taking a secondary character from a novel, albeit one who drove the plot in many ways, and making her the main character in a script could not be described as a conventional decision. Furthermore, seeing her lucid and speaking to another human being instead of the mysterious “Kid” provided insight to her actual character. In The Passenger, we could never quite be sure we were getting the real Alicia. In Stella Maris, we can’t quite be sure anything in The Passenger was entirely accurate, either.

Which brings me to the second thing I enjoyed most about Stella Maris. This book acts almost as a counterbalance to The Passenger. Some things are confirmed, some things are elaborated upon, yet some things are flatly contradicted. I had theories that The Passenger may not be what it seemed, and Stella Maris did much to reinforce such beliefs. Should Stella Maris take precedence over The Passenger in acting as our true guide to the overall story? It could all be in the title, right?

Finally, Alicia is a mathematical genius, and McCarthy sold me on that trait. Writers tend to utilize characters who are either English majors or writers themselves, because, of course, write what you know. When a writer tries to deliver a “genius” character with other aptitudes, it can come off as shallow at best and unbelievable at worst. McCarthy made me believe Alicia not only understood mathematics in a way almost no one else could, but that she truly lived it as a routine part of her life. Of course, I don’t know much about math, so he could have made it all up, which might actually have been even more impressive, but McCarthy seemed well-versed on what he discussed via Alicia.

In the end, I don’t know exactly what to think about both The Passenger or Stella Maris, other than I applaud the books for doing just that–making me think. While the books weren’t hard to read, they were, by design, hard to understand, which meant the reader had to read actively throughout. It’s been days since I finished The Passenger and I’m still thinking about it. I finished Stella Maris this morning and I’m sure it will also occupy space in my head for weeks to come.

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

For those of you seeking a book full of adventure and a streamlined plot, I suggest you look elsewhere. However, if you’re fascinated by the unknowns of life and the external factors that can dictate the direction of our existence, The Passenger may be for you.

Written by Cormac McCarthy, who also brought us The Road, No Country For Old Men, and The Border Trilogy, The Passenger begins with an interesting premise. Set in the early 1980s, Robert Western is a salvage diver who must investigate a plane still full of people submerged in a lake. However, there’s a passenger missing with no explanation as to how. Because Robert witnessed this, entities begin to question him, pursue him, and even threaten him.

As Robert flees from something he doesn’t fully understand, we learn more about his complex relationship with his sister, his father’s role in modern warfare, his numerous and eccentric friendships, and his own eclectic past.

And for me, that’s the genius of the book. We often don’t know what is coming next in life. Many times, there are events occurring at both a national and global scale that can have incredible ramifications upon our own lives without us knowing it until after the fact. Though brilliant, Robert doesn’t fully understand what’s happening to him in the present or what his future holds, but he does regularly analyze his past and how it led to the present.

I mentioned Robert’s sister. Portions of The Passenger are dedicated to her as well. We get to experience her brilliance, her empathy, her kindness, and her supposed madness. My understanding is that Stella Maris, a book released in conjunction with The Passenger, focuses more so on Alicia Western, Robert’s sister. Of course, I’ll read that next.

At 89 years of age, Cormac McCarthy may be thinking about what comes next. He might also be looking back at his long life and reflecting on things. Those ideas can’t help but influence my interpretation of The Passenger. I initially thought The Passenger referred to the missing person from the downed plane, but now I believe The Passenger refers to Robert Western himself, and all of us, really, as we are simply along for the ride during our allotted years upon this planet.

The Road – A Movie Review

Though The Road opened around Thanksgiving, it just came to my town a few days before Christmas.  This, along with the multiple delays and reshoots, gave me great concern that the movie would not live up to the source material.

My fears were unfounded.

Absolutely bleak and morose, the film perfectly captured the essence of McCarthy’s novel.  I absolutely believed I was looking at an apocalyptic landscape, especially because they made sure not to go too far over the top.  The landscape was covered with ash and burnt-out cars, but the skies were gray, the trees were bare, the streams ran, and the air was cold.  In other words, the world looked completely recognizable.  Unlike pure post-apocalyptic science fiction that leaves you feeling as though there wasn’t a chance in hell it could happen, The Road made you feel like, yeah, this could be what our tomorrow might hold, and that was a very scary feeling.

When I read the novel, it struck me as a potent work, but my wife and I were not yet parents back then.  Now that I am a father, the storyline took on a whole new meaning for me, and the brilliant Viggo Mortensen utterly conveyed the despair and hope of a father striving against all odds to protect and keep his son alive in practically lifeless conditions.  I believed in Viggo as the nameless protagonist, the everyman, and I saw some of myself in him, as I believe you will, too.

When my friend and I walked to our cars afterwards, another person who was in the theater yelled at us that he wanted his money back.  When I asked him why, he said the little boy was far too whiny for his tastes.  I have to wonder if he had a child himself, and if he did, if he could remember when that child was around nine or ten years old.  Personally, I thought the boy playing Viggo’s son did a great job, and he didn’t strike me as whiny at all.  Most child-actors take me right out of my suspension of disbelief, but this young actor made me believe in the story all the more so.

As a new parent, I particularly appreciated the fact that while The Road maintained much of the savageness of the novel, they did exercise discretion and left some of the more heinous scenes of the novel out, though they did hint at them.  If you’ve read the novel, you can probably imagine what I’m referring to.  There are some things a father simply does not want to see up on the big screen.

Which leads me to another point: I have a lot of trouble imagining someone enjoying this film if they haven’t read the novel.  Don’t get me wrong, I think this film was done about as well as a film can be, but if you have no idea what you’re getting into, I think The Road might be hard to endure.  In fact, some college kids behind us got up and left about half way through the film, mostly because they thought it was boring if I overheard them correctly.  It is a subtle, nuanced story with brief moments of nail-biting excitement, but mostly it is a steady, tense, quiet film with little dialogue and overpowering body language and facial expressions.

It is a relationship study, an analysis of the human will to survive, a social statement on the difficultly of maintaining morality in the face of abundant depravity, and it is magnificent.

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

In this third installment of The Border Trilogy, McCarthy brings together John Grady Cole from Book I and Billy Parham from Book II as they work together on a ranch.  Though neither delves too deeply into the tragedies in Mexico they both suffered, their unspoken experiences seem to bind them in ways they can’t understand.

A fitting conclusion to The Border Trilogy, McCarthy gives us the final fates of the two heroes we grew to love in previous volumes, and he does so in true McCarthy style.  While the plot is fairly simple, the book is anything but.  McCarthy once again offers dazzling asides that build characterization and encourages the reader to take ownership in Cole and Parham’s lives.  The task of the savvy novelists is not only to tell a good story, but to draw the reader into the day-to-day existence of his characters so thoroughly that the reader forgets it’s fiction in which they’re vicariously taking part.  McCarthy does just that with Cities of the Plain.

His deceptively complex tale is one that is concise yet expansive, beautiful yet mundane, noble yet tragic.  Like life, it is all these things and more.

No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

This was my first book by Cormac McCarthy, and I must admit he has won a reader for life. 

No Country For Old Men explodes with subtly and simplicity as it offers us Moss, a man who finds a drug deal gone bad in the middle of nowhere along the Mexican border.  Dead bodies are everywhere, and when he finds a case full of millions of dollars, he can’t help himself.  As you can imagine, there are numerable parties who’d like that money back.  And so the hunt for Moss begins.

Dialogue is terse, details are sparing, yet the story is absolutely riveting and I could not put it down.  For some McCarthy’s violence and unapologetic disregard for his characters’ safety may be upsetting, but I loved his dedication to giving us the story as it could only unfold.

We tend to shower accolades upon authors who give us specific descriptions on every conceivable object within a story.  I personally found McCarthy’s expertise with minimalism refreshing and quite admirable.

I completely recommend you read No Country For Old Men.

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

Maps and Legends was both a real pleasure and incredibly insightful in a multitude of ways. 

This nonfiction book by Michael Chabon, author of Wonderboys and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, offers a variety of essays that will assuredly please all readers.

That’s not to say that all readers will love each and every one of the essays in this book, though.  However, I know there is something for everyone to appreciate and even learn from in Maps and Legends.

Chabon essentially covers four broad topics in this collection.  He expends great energy discussing trends and personalities in comic books, the art of writing, various aspects of literature, and his own diverse influences and personal background.

Since these are four topics that I’m very interested in as well, I loved almost every single essay. 

Chabon is such an interesting man.  The idea that a Pulitzer Prize-winning author takes the time to lament the death of Will Eisner, acknowledge the brilliance of Howard Chaykin, analyze McCarthy’s The Road, and reveal deeply personal secrets (some even real) from his own life all within one collection, it’s just a pure joy for someone like me to experience.

However, I think the most valuable thing I learned from Chabon in his book is that the term “genre” in literature is not a naughty word.  He analyzes the importance of genre, especially in relation to the short story, and disparages the fact that people’s snobbery towards genre is actively executing the short story.

Furthermore, Chabon is utterly transparent in the essays involving his life, so transparent he even reveals he has lied to us and could be lying at any given moment.  That sort of honesty about deception is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re a fan of comic books, the art of writing, or Michael Chabon himself, I really encourage you to give this book a try.  I think you’ll be pleased with what you read.

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

Volume II of The Border Trilogy, The Crossing is McCarthy’s follow-up to All the Pretty Horses.  The United States-Mexican border is the only recurring character from the previous volume, but the settings and themes are quite similar.

However, The Crossing is unlike its predecessor in the fact that while All the Pretty Horses followed a fairly linear story, The Crossing resembles exact life in that one never knows what the next day will bring and sometimes today’s conflict has no resolution tomorrow.  Nonetheless, we grow and learn from one day to the next, whether we intend to or not.

The Crossing begins with Billy Parham, a teenager, inexplicably deciding to return a captured pregnant wolf to Mexico and neglecting to inform his parents of the trip.  The plight continues for such a lengthy time that I found myself wondering if the entire book would be about the return of the wolf.

It isn’t.

In true McCarthy style, the wolf’s tale comes to an abrupt conclusion.  However, Billy’s story continues on.

He returns home, only to have a horrifying discovery.  He now must return to Mexico with his younger brother on a new odyssey.  They have a mission, but that mission soon gets derailed and practically forgotten.

After a great deal of conflict, Billy finds himself alone once more and returns to America.  He wanders for several years and then resolves to return to Mexico a third time and find his brother.  What he does when he finally locates his brother will both stun and touch you.

McCarthy writes The Crossing in elaborate detail that sometimes can lull your interaction with the book.  However, just as things become almost dull, he jars you back to full alert.  Because of this, I like to compare this book to real life because follow-through is so rare in our day-to-day affairs.  We never know what to expect and predictions are so infrequently accurate we wonder why we bother in the first place.  McCarthy understands such nuances of true life but manages to synthesize such reality with enough drama and conflict to keep the reader invested.  We follow Billy on an epic journey that plays out over years and we watch him grow from a boy to a man, experiencing hardship that would annihilate most people.

I wouldn’t say The Crossing is one of my favorite reads, but I learned a great deal from the author about pacing and description.  I also learned more Spanish from this novel than three years in high school and understand the complexities of horses and camping on the open plain far more than I ever could have imagined, thanks to this book.

No Country for Old Men – A Movie Review

It’s a rare occurrence indeed when a film adaptation lives up to its source material, but with No Country for Old Men, Ethan and Joel Coen have done right by Cormac McCarthy. 

In McCarthy’s novel, he is terse and economic with details.  The book moves at an incredibly frantic pace and he shows no mercy to any of his characters.  Often violence is implied and sometimes even painfully described.  The Coens made sure not to deviate from this established tone.

Because they work in a visual medium, the Coens not only had to capture the essence of No Country for Old Men, but they also had to literally show us what these characters looked like, all the way from their faces to their boots.  McCarthy allowed the reader to fill in quite a few visual and auditory gaps, but the Coens had no such luxury.

And so, in my mind, we were awfully lucky the Coens found the perfect Moss and Chigurh in Josh Brolin and Javier Bardem.  Brolin oozed the silent, capable resourcefulness of Moss while Bardem took a character who had thus been sparsely described and created cinematic gold. 

Chigurh is unsettling in the novel, but in the movie the Coens and Bardem make him a terrifying study of subtle villainy.  I don’t think Bardem raised his voice even once in the movie, but his empty facial expressions and slight voice inflections were more nerve-wracking than any chest-thumping or profanity-laced tirades.  Too often villains simply become the reverse of the protagonist.  Not in No Country for Old Men.  Not by a long shot.  Each character is his own man, far and away.

From a cinematic point of view, the Coens were marvelous with their choice of shots, locations, costumes, props, and acting directions.  There’s a particular scene near the beginning of the movie where a man is strangled while laying on his back upon the floor.  Graphic, yes, but what impressed me to no end is the fact that the Coens made sure the man’s boot heels left hundreds of scuff marks on the tiled floor.  That sort of attention to detail is much appreciated.

Some may feel the Coens offered too violent of a film.  I think it’s important to note that they embellished nothing from the novel.  The movie is one of the purest adaptations I’ve ever seen, and McCarthy wrote one very violent, unapologetic, merciless novel. 

I personally am grateful to the Coens for taking a masterfully written novel and treating its subject matter just as the author intended.  It would seem that because they converted literary art to true cinematic art, they were amply rewarded.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

The first volume of what’s known as The Border Trilogy, All the Pretty Horses encompasses what I love about McCarthy’s writing.


Set in the late Forties, All the Pretty Horses follows teenage Texan John Grady Cole seeking a better life for himself in Mexico.  He travels by horse with his slightly older friend, Rawlins, and on the way down they join up with a very young teenager named Blevins.  They can tell Blevins is trouble, and he causes them more problems than they ever could have imagined.  But John also finds some danger without the help of Blevins, and it involves the daughter of his new ranch boss that he just can’t quit.


McCarthy offers a bit more descriptive narration than I care for in this work, slowing it down at times, but his tight-lipped, capable, honorable, humble, and just plain tough John Grady Cole represents what I enjoy most about McCarthy’s creations.  John Grady Cole is the perfect McCarthy protagonist, and this neo-western perfectly conveys all that it means to be human—love, loss, betrayal, redemption, loyalty, and resolve.


It is with great anticipation I look forward to completing The Border Trilogy.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy – A Book Review

I heard many positive statements about the work of Cormac McCarthy, and so a few weeks ago, I gave him a try with No Country for Old Men.  I was not disappointed. 


Because of such a sublime experience, I couldn’t wait to read another of his works, this time opting for The Road.  I must admit from my previous exposure to McCarthy, I had a very difficult time finding what possible allure The Road held for Oprah Winfrey, who named it her book of the month (or whatever she may call it) a while back. 


Nothing against Oprah, but I made sure to buy a used copy, one produced at a time when they weren’t yet stamping her approval upon the cover.


The Road had much in common with No Country for Old Men, but it also had many dissimilarities.  The commonalities included the lack of quotation marks, the terse sentences and paragraphs, and a minimalist approach to description.


In contrast, however, The Road did not grab my interest by the throat and demand I give it my full attention as did No Country for Old Men.  In fact, I found myself rather uninterested in The Road and struggled for the motivation to finish it.


I must wonder, however, if the slow, mind-numbing style employed by McCarthy meant to reflect the despair and melancholy his characters fought to overcome with every breath they took.


For The Road is the story of a post-apocalyptic world, one covered in ash where little to no life has survived.  A man and a boy travel a road, desperately heading to the ocean, though they know not what they’ll find upon arriving.  The boy has known no other world, but the man can remember a time without hunger, without death surrounding them like a second skin, and he wants more than anything to keep the boy alive.  The hope of finding the boy a better life is the only reason the man has for subsisting.


Nevertheless, because this is McCarthy, a happy conclusion is not guaranteed.


The composition of The Road mirrored the plight of its characters, and while this is an interesting stylistic choice, it ultimately left me dispassionate.  Though I am glad Oprah enjoyed it.


However, The Road did NOT turn me off McCarthy, who I still believe is an extraordinary writer, and I look forward to reading more of his work.