Saturday, September 27, 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

David Benioff is probably best known for writing The 25th Hour, a gritty crime novel which he then adapted into a Spike Lee film starring Edward Norton. He also wrote the screenplay for Troy (which I won't hold against him), and adapted Khalid Hosseini's The Kite Runner (which I haven't yet seen). However, my first introduction to David Benioff was a few years ago when someone handed me his second book, a short story collection entitled When the Nines Roll Over. It's a wonderful collection, and even now, years later, two of the stories, "The Devil Comes to Orekhovo" and the last story, "Merde for Luck," (which struck me so hard that I photocopied it and mailed it to a dozen of my friends) are still floating around in my head.

But what I really want to talk about is Benioff's latest novel, City of Thieves, which was published in May and I read recently on a rather harrowing plane ride. I seem to have this bad habit of never reading the book that an author is best known for; for example: in college I read almost everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote except for Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five; I've read some Philip Roth, but not American Pastoral or Portnoy's Complaint; and just yesterday, when deciding which Connie Willis book to read, I chose To Say Nothing of the Dog over Doomsday Book, in part because I was told that she's best known for Doomsday Book. This list could go on and on. And with David Benioff - I've read two of his books, neither of which are The 25th Hour. I have every intention to read it, seriously, I do. I want to read it. But a part of me has resigned myself to the fact that it might never happen, due to whatever odd bit of psychology has kept me from reading Slaughterhouse Five all these years, despite owning two perfectly good copies. One of the many reasons I'll never be a real book reviewer or critic.

City of Thieves takes place during the siege of Leningrad, when two young men (strangers) accused of desertion are given a ludicrous mission: they have five days to steal a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Of course, if you know your history, you'll remember that everyone in Leningrad is starving. There are no eggs. People are eating dirt. Hell, people are selling dirt to other people as food! Also for sale as food: the glue that holds books together (called Library Candy). And this colonel wants eggs to bake a cake? The concept alone felt like love at first site.

And check out the first line: "You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold." A great opening line. But technically, this isn't really the first line - the novel has a framing story (basically a prologue) to set things up. Readers of this blog know that I'm no great lover of prologues, but this one works. In it we are introduced to David, who is writing a piece about his grandparents' experiences during the siege of Leningrad. He tells us that his grandfather talked most about one week in January 1942, when "he met my grandmother, made his best friend, and killed two Germans." This is a promise to the reader of what's to come, and it really adds a lot of fun and tension to the story. At times, reading City of Thieves reminded me of watching that bad CBS show with Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother, because every time Lev (the grandfather) meets a woman you think, "ooh, could this be the grandmother?" You also wonder how the hell Lev, a scrawny 17-year-old and self-confessed coward, is ever going to kill two Germans.

Here's how it begins: Lev Beniov is caught out after curfew by Red Army soldiers and accused of theft and desertion. He's thrown in a cell with another boy/man, Kolya, who is also accused of desertion. Kolya is Lev's polar opposite - he's tall, blond, handsome, and charismatic, where Lev is short, scrawny, and chronically terrified. Both boys expect to be shot in the morning, and nearly are, but they are saved by the colonel who wants the eggs. They have five days to bring back a dozen eggs, and the colonel confiscates their ration cards, so they can't simply disappear.

The next five days are full of everything I look for in a story: adventure and danger and mystery, some absurdity, some emotional moments, an "ah-ha" moment or two (for the characters, not me), and good writing. I loved this book, and heartily recommend it.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Go With Me by Castle Freeman Jr.

This book was recommended to me by an editor whose recommendations I've come to take seriously. The last book he sent my way was Don Winslow's The Death and the Life of Bobby Z, which is a fast read and a lot of fun. Go With Me was published earlier this year by Steerforth Press, an independent publisher in New Hampshire. I decided to take a chance and spring for it in hardcover. It's very nicely packaged as literary fiction, though the plot and pacing have more in common with genre fiction - suspense in particular. It's definitely worth the $21.95.

The plot is very straightforward - in a small rural New England town, a young woman named Lillian is being stalked by the local villain, Blackway. Her boyfriend Kevin left town in fear. When Blackway kills Lillian's cat, she goes to the Sheriff for help. The novel opens the morning after her cat's death. Lillian has slept in her car, curled up with a paring knife for protection, parked outside the Sheriff's office.

The Sheriff says he can't help her - that he can't arrest a man for what he intends to do, but hasn't done yet. But he tells her to go ask for Whizzer at the old mill, that he might be able to do something. At the mill, long defunct, Whizzer is drinking beer with a half dozen other guys. Nate the Great, a young, strong, and brash young man, and Les, who's really old but knows a lot of tricks, volunteer to help Lillian. The trio sets off to find Blackway.

From here, the narrative alternates between the search for Blackway, and Whizzer and the guys at the mill, drinking and shooting the shit and filling in the background information.

The great thing about this novel (or novella rather - it's a slim 160 pages, and easily read in one sitting) is how Freeman Jr. develops the villain, Blackway. First of all, Blackway is a classic name for a bad guy, summoning up fairy tales and old style quest stories. But the most brilliant thing is how we don't meet or see Blackway until the very end of the novel, during the final confrontation scene. We hear that he's been terrorizing Lillian, and we get a series of what seem like tall tales surrounding Blackway from Whizzer and the group of men drinking at the mill. Nate the Great repeats his answer of "I ain't afraid of Blackway," to most questions Lillian asks, and somehow, the more you hear this mantra, the more you get the impression that he really should be afraid; deeply afraid. We have no idea what Blackway looks like - tall, short, light or heavy build - or even how old he is. All we know is that everyone except Nate is scared shitless of him, including the local Sheriff. Blackway ran Lillian's boyfriend out of town with just a few words. It's a subtle, suspenseful, and effective building of a bad guy that definitely had me afraid of Blackway and thinking that if I were Lillian, I'd turn tail and get the hell out of town.

Nate the Great and Les play off each other perfectly. Nate's the young pup always ready to start a fight and prove himself, and Les is crafty enough to get them out of some really sticky situations relying solely on his wits and the surroundings (like a MacGyver of whorehouses and bar fights). They are a classic quest couple, as different and complimentary as Don Quixote and Sancho. The tension and violence increase the closer they get to Blackway, and meanwhile, the conversation among Whizzer and co. hints at new information that puts their quest in a new light. As the sun sets the trio moves toward the final confrontation. At this point I was really nervous and anxious to finally meet Blackway. And he didn't disappoint.

The whole novel takes place in the span of 24 hours. It's smart, concise, well-plotted, well-written, and very engaging. I'd recommend it to just about everyone.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Thirteen by Richard Morgan

I'm a big Philip K. Dick fan - or at least I was in college, when I read most of his books - and I've been meaning to read Altered Carbon for years, but I decided to pick up Thirteen (or Th1rte3n) first. It was initially published in the UK as Black Man, (with that lovely British lack of racial sensitivity) because the main character, Carl Marsalis, is black. He's also a thirteen, which is a genetically altered male trained from birth for combat, and just general violence and aggression. The idea is that civilized society has been overly feminized, since the true alpha males (I pictured them as the cave men from those Geico commercials) have been slowly bred out. Thirteens were part of a genetic engineering experiment to bring these traits back. But thirteens are hated and feared by society, and not allowed to breed. They live on the fringes, either in hiding or trying to "pass," work as covert operatives, or have immigrated to colonial Mars.

The book is set primarily in a future America, which isn't that different from today. Civil war has split the nation in thirds - the Midwest and South are now Jesusland, governed by fundamental Christians. The West Coast succeeded and is known as the Rim States, and the North East seems to closely resemble the secularism and internationalism that New York City shoots for. Carl Marsalis works for UN, hunting down rogue thirteens. He's totally alone - normal humans are terrified of him, and other thirteens consider him a traitor. On the way back from his latest mission he gets stuck in Florida, picked up on a vice charge, and thrown into a Jesusland prison. After four months he's finally offered a way out - if he agrees to hunt down a thirteen who has somehow escaped from Mars and is killing seemingly random people all over the former US.

His partners are Tom Norton and Sevgi Ertekin. Sevgi is a former NYPD cop, who now works for COLIN, the CIA type organization that busted Marsalis out of jail. She's a great character - her parents are Turkish immigrants, she grew up Muslim and does her best to hold on to her faith in the face of scientific evidence to the contrary, and in spite of being a modern woman. She previously dated a thirteen who was "passing," so is no stranger to the type of prejudice and alienation they experience. There's an immediate attraction between her and Marsalis which leads to lots of great arguments and high-minded dialog, and eventually a deep friendship.

As a side note, I think it's worth mentioning that thirteens have a certain sex appeal, some je ne sais quoi that harks back to those primitive days when men were men and women were thrown over their shoulders or dragged off by their hair to be ravished up against the wall of some cave. Maybe it's because I live in a gay neighborhood, or because I see my fair share of underfed metrosexual hipster boys wherever I go, but the whole idea of a world that's swung too far toward the feminine really interested me. Check out this bit of dialog, which comes about halfway through the book, in a conversation between Sevgi and some Turkish guy:

"We index how civilized a nation is by the level of female participation it enjoys. We fear those societies where women are still not empowered, and with good cause. Investigating violent crime, we assume, correctly, that the perpetrator will most likely be male. We use male dominance as a predictor of trouble, and of suffering, because when all is said and done males are the problem."

It's a nice bit of stereotyping, but like the best stereotypes, it also has a ring of truth. Thirteen is full of great side issues like this, which are developed primarily through the characters' dialog, and give you some cool themes to chew on between reading sessions (because at 544 pages in hardcover, you probably won't breeze through this one in a single night). There's the whole way that the United States has split in three parts, the genetic engineering of humans (in addition to thirteens they've created bonobos, which are "primitive" women with amped up sex drives), and the way that Carl sees himself in relation to the rest of humanity, which could be read as a racial allegory.

As much as I liked this book, I did have some gripes. It begins with a very short prologue, and you don't figure out how that prologue relates to anything until at least 100 pages in (maybe more). This is a pet peeve of mine - I'm really not a fan of what I call the short cliff hanger prologue, where the author attempts to build suspense and tension by making the reader wonder, hey, what the hell was that prologue all about? And how does it relate to the main character, or chapters 1, 2, and 3, or, um, anything? When I have to ask these questions, my instinct is not to read the book with intensity and attention to detail, because I'm just burning for answers. My instinct is to be annoyed.

Also, though the story starts with Carl Marsalis, and this great fight/action scene, we only stay with him for two chapters, and then we bounce around between a bunch of other characters all over the former US. Again, not a technique that I'm fond of, especially so early in a book. We don't get back in Carl until page 110. I suppose the author makes it work, because eventually, all these characters are woven back into the story, even the very minor ones. However, I'm not sure if the satisfaction of seeing these (mostly minor) characters come back around, and the sense of recognition I got from that, was really worth the disorientation I felt in the beginning. I wasn't hooked into this story easily, or quickly.

However, once we get back to Carl the plot really takes off, and I was hooked. It's a dystopian noir crime novel, but when Carl wraps up the primary plot earlier than you'd expect, the story takes a deeper and sharper turn that I really liked. Some people complained about this early denouement, and I can see their point, because some of the danger and urgency gets sucked out of the story with 150 pages left to go, but this actually worked for me. I won't go into detail here, because I don't want to spoil the book for anyone. Suffice it to say that there are larger forces at work than the characters (or the reader) had imagined (mwah-hah-hah!).

Though the pacing feels uneven at times, I think Morgan hits a great balance between on-the-edge-of-your-seat action scenes, and long stretches of dialog, which he uses to develop and strenghthen the characters, and do some world-building. There's a know-it-all character, who is prone to lecturing and answering simple questions with long-winded rants that explain how the state of the world got from where it is now to where it is in the book. This character reminded me a bit of Jubal Harshaw from Heinlein's Stranger In a Strange Land. I liked him, and hey, there are worse ways to world-build, but I also found it gratifying when Carl, at one point, kicks his articulate ass for not getting to the point fast enough.

All things considered, this is a great book that I'm happy to recommend. Even if you have to push yourself through the first 100 pages or so, and a some pretty slow stretches (like when Sevgi's in the hospital), it's well worth the read.

Also, I read an interview with Richard Morgan where he says some smart things about dystopias and heroes and anti-heroes. Here's a blurb that I liked:

"Well, it’s really not that hard to write dystopias – you only have to take a look around at what’s going on in the real world, and then extrapolate with pessimistic intent. Human beings have a habit of fucking things up, no matter what technological advances are made available, and the worst aspects of human nature never seem to be far from emerging in all their malicious glory. None of the manifest scientific, social or cultural progress of the last century was able to prevent a catastrophic invasion of Iraq for small-minded corporate and geopolitical gain, or to bring Palestine any closer to a peaceful settlement than it was nearly sixty years ago in 1948. Greed and fear continue to dominate our political landscape despite everything we've achieved, and the hard won rationalism of the Enlightenment is now under renewed attack from a ferocious array of slobbering religious and superstitious morons. To be honest, you have to be remarkably optimistic to look all that in the face, and then imagine a future that ISN’T dystopian."

And on that happy note, I'll take my leave. Read the full interview here.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Chelsea Cain

It's been a long time since my last substantial post. I've been doing a lot of reading, but between all the manuscripts and a new (and too banal to mention) category I've been obsessively researching, I haven't had much time for the type of book that I get excited enough to share here. I know, woe is me, right? Enough whining.

The point is that I've only read a handful of published books worth mentioning in the last few months. One was The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. It was really fun in a cranial sort of way. It's all about elevators. If you think about it (and Colson Whitehead obviously has), we owe a lot to elevators - like the way we live and the shape of our cities. The Intuitionist is set in a city reminiscent of a newly industrialized New York, where people really appreciate elevators, and elevator inspectors are very highly regarded. You need a post-graduate degree to be one, and within the elite study of elevators there are two camps: the Empiricists, who inspect the elevators in the way you'd expect, by going to the engine room and checking out the machinery manually, and the Intuitionists, who just ride in the elevator, and "intuit" whether or not everything is alright. This story focuses on an Intuitionist who also happens to be the only black female elevator inspector. She gives a clean bill of health to an elevator that malfunctions and crashes the very next day. How could this happen? She's a master Intuitionist, but many people want to see her fail, because of her race and her sex, and discredit Intuitionism altogether. The mystery unfolds from there. And the reader does a lot of thinking about elevators.

Though here's something that the author doesn't address: without elevators, would we still have stair masters? As much as I have this new appreciation for elevators, they are probably responsible for some loathsome gym equipment.

There are also people who inspect escalators in the book, but they are looked down upon by everyone, and given no respect.

Other than the Colson Whitehead book, I've read two novels that I hope are the beginning of a continuing series: Chelsea Cain's Heartsick and Sweetheart. These are serial killer thrillers that feature a brilliant and psychotic female serial killer, Gretchen Lowell, who is known as the Beauty Killer (because she's gorgeous, and also because of the way she carves up her victims). She's tortured and murdered nearly 200 people, and when the novel opens she is in jail. Her 200th victim was Detective Archie Sheridan, who led the Beauty Killer task force, and was kidnapped and tortured by Gretchen for ten days before she saved his life by calling the paramedics and turning herself in. When the novel opens, a badly damaged and Vicodin-addicted Archie has been assigned to a lead a new task force to catch a new serial killer. Archie consults with Gretchen every Sunday during visiting hours, partly because she continues to give up the location of her corpses, but mostly because he has a strange and unhealthy attachment to her and just can't stay away.

It's obvious that this set-up owes a lot to Thomas Harris' Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs (Cain even gives Harris a shout-out in one of her scenes, when Gretchen snidely calls the reporter visiting her "Clarice"). Sure, it's derivative, but I wasn't too bothered by that. Cain manages to distinguish her plot just enough, and gives the story some great twists that make it fresh. Also, the dialog between Archie and Gretchen is just great.

There are two point of views in the novel, Archie's, and the aforementioned reporter, Susan Ward's. For reasons that aren't clear until later in the book, Archie decides to have Susan profile him as he goes about hunting this new serial killer, dubbed the After School Killer. Interspersed with the present day action are flashbacks to the ten days when Archie was tortured by Gretchen. She is one sadistic homicidal psychopath, and Cain perfectly balances conveying the torture scenes with detail, but keeping them bearable for squeamish readers. There's a lot going on in Heartsick, and I found myself equally interested in the murder investigation, Archie and Gretchen's past, and the way that Susan's own past turns out to be relevant. Gretchen is revealed as a mastermind worthy of our awe and fear, and this novel kept surprising me, even after the murder is solved. Cain is a writer who really knows how to craft a plot.

I began reading Sweetheart right on the heels of Heartsick. Though Sweetheart doesn't come out until September, I'd picked up a galley in London, and the back cover copy promises that "Chelsea Cain is back... and so is Gretchen. She's on the loose, and looking for her SWEETHEART." Cheesy and tawdry, I know, but I was still alarmed and totally amped. Gretchen escapes from jail?! Awesome. Actually she doesn't escape until page 133, about a third of the way through the book, and the story dragged a bit for me until then. (It could have been the edition I was reading though, which was a really bad UK galley with a lot of typesetting errors, a strange squat shape, and an extremely stiff spine that took me at least a third of the book to break in.)

So, the book opens with a murder investigation underway. A senator is dead and there are unidentified bodies found in the woods. These deaths are certainly tied to a story that Susan Ward was just about to break - the biggest of her career. Before I go on, let me say something about Susan. While Archie has the most-physically-and-emotionally-fucked-up-character slot secured, Susan has her own flaws. She has this chronic tendency to sleep with much older men - authority figures - which she's currently trying to get over by sleeping with her co-worker. Her hair color fluctuates between pink and turquoise. She has a crush on Archie that she can't hide. I love that the three main characters in this book - Archie, Susan, and Gretchen - are all pretty screwed up.

The story really takes off once Gretchen gets free, and I found it impossible to put it down. Archie had stopped his Sunday visits to Gretchen, moved back in with his wife and children, and seemed to be on his way back to a somewhat normal life. All this progress in undone once Gretchen escapes, and his obsession with her consumes him once again. Quite brilliantly, Cain has hidden something about Archie and Gretchen's past that she only reveals about two-thirds of the way through this book. I just loved this reveal, and thought it was so smart of Cain to hold it back until late in the second book, when readers will assume that we've already learned everything there was to know about their "relationship" in the first book. This extra backstory adds yet another dimension to Archie's tortured character. He engineers a dangerous way to capture her, though the reader is never sure what his plan entails. This is a risky choice on Cain's part, and one that usually pisses me off when other authors try and pull it off - I really hate it when the main characters hide stuff from me. But it works here - maybe because the point of view is third person, maybe because Archie is such the secretive type, or maybe because there's so much mystery surrounding Archie and Gretchen that it seemed natural for me to be in the dark a bit. In any case, the plan Archie concocts is a good one, and relies heavily on Susan to use her smarts and reporting skills to save him from himself and Gretchen.

I won't say anymore. If you like dark thrillers, these books are for you.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


Sarah tagged me the other day. I usually ignore this sort of thing - blog tagging is on par with those surveys your friends send you where you have to answer questions like, what kind of underwear are you wearing right now? or, if you were an animal, what animal would you be? or that creepy Tibetan forward with the music where you have to figure out which colors remind you of which friends, and in the end it's revealed that the way you feel about coffee is actually the way you feel about sex - but lets face it, I haven't posted anything in a long time, so here goes:

* Link to the person that tagged you.
* Post the rules on your blog.
*Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself.
*Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs. [I am breaking this rule. It ends here. I'm not afraid of seven years of bad luck, or whatever]
*Let each random person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their website.

1) Lately I've picked up the absentminded habit of putting non-recyclables in our recycling box, such as my breakfast cereals, and one time, my shoes. But Sarah, just to clarify, that guy we got a building-wide memo about who tried to recycle a bowling ball? NOT ME.

2) I consider laundry to be a competitive sport. Or better yet, a reality show: there are winners, and there are losers, and I'm there to win. Don't smile at me, or make small talk - I know the game, and you're just trying to distract me from my spin cycle so you can sneak your stuff in the empty dryer I've been eyeing.

3) I don't respond to e-queries that I'm not interested in. This is because at least 1 in every 5 writers e-mails me back to argue with my form letter, or to ask indignantly, "did you actually read my query?" and I have this stupid urge to write back and say something like "Read it? Your query and I have run off and joined the circus together. We are very happy. I hope you find similar fulfillment." Clearly, this is a vicious cycle that must be avoided, and I can't always trust my professionalism to win out over my idiotic creative impulses.

4) If I had a cheese characteristic, it would probably be, as Sarah suggested, tangy or spicy. But I wish it were smooth.

5) At least once a week my husband and I have an argument about who is "the funny one" in our relationship. Contrary to what you might think, these arguments are never funny.

6) I live in an up-and-coming neighborhood, which means that everything is under construction. Consequently, we have no sidewalk, and the city has barricaded half a lane of traffic off for pedestrian use. When it rains, this walkway completely floods, and you have to balance on the barricade, and leap from dry spot to dry spot, trying not to jump into a) other pedestrians, b) their dogs, c) their baby strollers, d) their abandoned groceries, e) the fire hydrant. (My husband has jumped into the fire hydrant twice). It's been like this for over a year. I still think it's a pretty fun obstacle course, and secretly think it's lame that everyone calls 311 to complain.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Haven Review of Books

I've taken quite a vacation from this blog, but I certainly haven't taken a break from reading, or the occassional book review. If you've missed me, you can find my review of a wonderful cozy mystery, Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station by Dorothy Gillman, posted at a new review venue, The New Haven Review of Books.

The New Haven Review of Books will be posting a new short (300ish words) review every Monday. Attentive readers will notice that my review is not nearly as long, rambling and self-indulgent as the reviews on this site, though it still manages to "out-word-count" the other four reviews. The NHRB has two basic rules for reviews: 1) that the review be positive (they are not interested in slamming books), and 2) the the book be overlooked by other, larger, review venues. Now, you cozy readers out there know that the Mrs. Pollifax series is very popular among mystery readers, so there's a bit of an exception to rule #2 - if the book is well-known within a genre, but remains unknown to general readers, (or perhaps, in the case of Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station, is over 20 years old) then it counts as overlooked.

The NHRB is looking for reviewers, so please get in touch (with them) if you have a brilliant and underappreciated book that you'd like to write about.

In other review news, I thought this article in the New York Times blog, about the 7 most overused words in book reviews, was pretty funny. I think I'm guiltly of using (or overusing) at least four....

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Books on a Plane, Part II: Books = Home Wreckers

Recently I was on a plane. With books. And my husband. He also likes to read. He reads faster than me, so has to bring even more books on the plane. Together, we are absolutely hopeless. We never have any legroom.

We were flying non-stop from New York to LA, which is a six hour flight. Across the aisle from us, there was this old Russian guy. He was drunk. And really friendly. He kept talking to the all the passengers, like, he would tap the passenger directly in front of him on the shoulder and start up a conversation. Do you know how uncomfortable it is to turn around and attempt conversation with the person directly behind you in Delta coach? The Russian didn't. Our flight left at seven in the morning. How did he get so drunk so early?

I'm a friendly person. People who sit by me on planes often pick up on this, and they talk to me about all kinds of things. Keeping this in mind I applied what I call Double Insulation against the Russian. I engaged in reading while simultaneously listening to my headphones. This is a really effective strategy on NYC public transportation. You can ignore crazy people without seeming rude. It worked on the Russian too, for a time.

The Russian talked and talked - he never stopped. He kept drinking too. Those damn Delta stewardesses kept serving him, and he also had his own stash. He pissed a couple of people off, but I only half paid attention. Then, when there was no one left to talk to, he turned his attention on my husband and I.

I took note because he kept touching my husband in slightly inappropriate places, like the upper upper thigh and the top of his head and his cheek. My husband put the hood of his sweatshirt on, and pulled the drawstrings tight - a strategy he uses when we are watching a particularly bad movie, or, when someone (usually me) says something really stupid. The Russian was impervious. He wanted to know, what were we reading? And this is kind of embarrassing, because we were, at the moment, both reading hardcovers by Jim Butcher. I was reading the Dresden Files, and by husband was reading the latest Codex Alera book. We had to show our books to the whole plane practically, and I could tell they all thought we were one of those Dungeon & Dragons couples. The Russian said, "This is most important thing in life, that you both have same intellect." He thumped our books on his seat back tray table for emphasis. "This is most important thing for marriage, you both can read!"

The Russian loved us. He knew that we would live happily ever after and never get divorced or throw plates at each other. Couples who read together stay together. He didn't say this. He said twenty minutes worth of drivel that amounted to the same thing. He also gave us advice. He said, "the most important thing is for you love each other. And to cherish each other." We told him that seemed like a good idea. We'd give it a shot. And then, very politely, we attempted to resume reading.

The Russian took no hints and was undeterred. He kept on talking. Finally, he went to the restroom. Then he came back. I suspect he had thrown back some shots with the stewardesses. His mood had changed.

He sat down and started moaning: "no, no, no, no, NO, no, no, no, NO, no, no, no, NO!" The Russian stared at us. We stared at our books. My husband's sweatshirt draw stings were pulled so tight I could only see his nose. The Russian slapped his open book with his flat meaty hand: "This, THIS IS BULLSHIT!" he said. And then he tried to rip the pages. My husband has quick reflexes, and he slapped his hand away. "Please," he said, "we're reading now, we don't want to talk anymore." The Russian resumed his weird moaning. He rocked back and forth in his chair. It was sort of like how someone might dance to a Gregorian chant.

This went on for some time. The other passengers were too scared to intervene. They had all had their interactions with the Russian, and were trying their best to act invisible. The Russian started saying, "your wife, she will leave you. She will leave you, because you read." He said this over and over, in a slurred prophetic voice. "You always read. She will leave you. When I see my wife, in the LAX, I will take her, and I will talk with her, and I will kiss on her. I love my wife!" He paused here to slap my husband's upper upper thigh. "Talk to your wife! Kiss on your wife! You must love her! Stop with this, this bullshit!" And here he'd slap the book. "Your wife, she will leave you."

Slowly but surely, my shit was beginning to unravel. How much can the modern woman take of being talked about like she ain't right there? Then, the Russian crossed the line. He said, "your wife, she will fuck with other men." I'd had it. I jumped out of my seat and lurched for the Russian. At least, that was the general idea. Somewhere along the line, we had began our initial descent, and my seat and tray table were in their upright positions, and more importantly, my seat belt was fastened. I didn't get far. I said some choice words to the Russian. The Russian looked appropriately stunned. My husband echoed my sentiments, because he knew that the Russian had to hear it from a man. The Russian spent the next 30 minutes apologizing to us, and to the rest of the plane. He apologized to everyone personally. He shook everyone's hands. He was incapable of not talking.

I thought that being harassed for reading stopped somewhere around the age 15. But no, books pose an even more serious threat in adulthood, undermining the hallowed institution of marriage. I looked for the Russian in baggage claim. I wanted to see him kissing on his wife, who, if my math was correct, he had married at the age of 14, and his son, who he fathered at the age of 15. I never saw him again. When we left the plane we were surrounded by the other passengers, who congratulated my husband on his calm and patience, and apologized for not interfering. They wanted to help us file a complaint. The men slapped him on the shoulder. The women looked up at him admiringly.

Not one person asked us for a book recommendation.