Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Bridge by Gay Talese

Everyone has a plan B. This is what you'll do when the economy collapses, when the apocalypse happens, when you have some sort of cheesy American movie light-bulb moment - whenever something big and impacting enough happens for you to finally do whatever slightly dumb and romantic thing it is that you've always wanted to do.

Me, I'll be a bike mechanic. Ten years ago, my plan was to climb electrical poles in third world countries and do whatever it is exactly that people do up there with all those tools in their tool belts. I have this idea that I'm mechanically inclined because I like to take things apart and put them back together, and because I'm always the one who ends up assembling the shower caddy, or the wine tower, or the entertainment center. I know how naive this sounds, but blue collar work just seems so honest. I like getting my hands all greasy. I like to sweat. And to curse. I even like the cuts, the way they sting is a reassurance, a reminder, and later, the small scars. At the end of the day, you've accomplished something that you can lay your dirty cut up bruised hands on. You go to the bar and have a beer and bullshit and feel like you're part of something. That's what I'll do when the shit hits the fan. Become a 1950s man.

In the meantime, I'll read books like The Bridge.

It's a slim book, just 147 pages, and sort of squat and square shaped, with some really cool pictures and drawings of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in various stages of completion. The Verrazano connects Bay Ridge Brooklyn to Staten Island, and is the longest suspension bridge in the US. The bridge was completed in 1964, and the book was published that same year (though I read a revised paperback edition published in 2003). At that time Talese was a reporter for the New York Times, and writes that he often donned a hard hat and joined the workers on the catwalks. Talese romanticizes the workers quite a bit, even though many of the individual stories he tells end with premature death, comas, or crippling accidents. Here's how he opens chapter one:

"They drive into town in big cars, and live in furnished rooms, and drink whiskey with beer chasers, and chase women they will soon forget. They linger only a little while, only until they have built the bridge; then they are off again to another town, another bridge, linking everything but their lives.... They are part circus, part gypsy - graceful in the air, restless on the ground; it is as if the wide-open road below lacks for them the clear direction of an eight-inch beam stretching across the sky six hundred feet above the sea."

Maybe it seems silly to some to write like this about bridge builders - can you imagine similar odes to bus drivers, or trash men, or plumbers? - but I'm feeling it. I'm one of those readers who thought Christopher "Alexander Supertramp" McCandless was idealistic and brave, not foolhardy and suicidal, when I read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. Also, I've got this thing for bridges. Someday, I will design and complete the Ultimate Bridge Ride, where I ride my bike over 17 or 18 of the New York City bridges in one day. But until then, well, there's my couch and The Bridge.

Talese touches on quite a few historical heavy weights. This book could have been a whole lot longer - in league with something like Thomas Kelly's Empire Rising - and I wouldn't have minded. He mentions Robert Moses as a polarizing figure, but like a good reporter doesn't take a stance on how he personally feels about him displacing so many families and businesses in Bay Ridge for the bridge. (As a side note, I find it super absurd that Robert Moses, champion of car culture, never learned to drive!) Talese mentions James J. Braddock, the "Cinderella Man," who years after winning the heavyweight title in 1938 ends up working as an oiler, maintaining a welding machine, nearly 60-years-old. The assassination of John F. Kennedy and its effects are briefly noted.

But for me, the best part of this book was learning about the building of the bridge itself. Listen to this:

"But now the Verranzano-Narrows Bridge presented Ammann with an even larger task. And to master its gigantic design he would even have to take into account the curvature of the earth. The two 693-foot towers, though exactly perpendicular to the earth's surface, would have to be one and five-eighths inches farther apart at their summits than at their bases....It's steel cables would swell when hot and contract when cold, and its roadway would be twelve feet closer to the water in summer than in winter. Sometimes, on long hot summer days, the sun would beat down on one side of the structure with such intensity that it might warp the steel slightly, making the bridge a fraction lower on its hot side than on its shady side."

For the most part bridges seem immovable to me - so solid and unbending - I certainly never think of their cables capable of fluctuating twelve feet! However, Talese writes that in the mid 1800s, as many as forty bridges might collapse in a single year, meaning that for every four bridges built, one would fall down. The most memorable story of bridge collapse is the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which fell into the waters of Puget Sound in 1940. The fashion of the time was for increasingly slimmer and sleeker suspension bridges, and it was cheaper to to build the span and roadway floor with solid plate girders, instead of trusses that wind could pass through. The result was that on a windy day, the Tacoma Narrows bridge kicked up and down, and earned the cutesy (instead of terrifying) nickname "Galloping Gertie." Apparently, no one was bothered by this, until one night it started "kicking" up and down by about twenty eight feet, and twisting in the wind at a forty five degree angle. Bridge Authorities closed the bridge, and it fell the next morning.

In terms of maintenance, every ten years the Verrazano has to be scraped of rust (and, perhaps, pigeon shit?) and repainted. That process takes five years and costs about 75 million dollars. In the afterward Talese wrote that 250,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day, and deposit a daily sum of 1 million dollars. I could go on and on, but by now you probably have an idea whether or not this book is for you. I enjoyed it immensely, and my only complaint is that it's not longer and more detailed. It's a quick read that scratches the surface of a lot of different issues, and has me reaching for more in-depth books about bridges and urban planning and manly dirty men.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Books on a Plane

Flying makes me nervous. Not for all the usual reasons, like fear of cold water landings, fear of crashing and death, fear of sitting next to obese people, or chronic sneezers, or having some gun wielding maniac shoot a hole in the plane and consequently getting sucked through a tiny bullet hole due to air pressure differential (thanks, Fifth Grade Teacher). No. I get nervous about reading material. Do I have enough to read? What if we are delayed on the runway? What if we have to circle forever because of, I don't know, for whatever reason that happens? What if I run out of stuff to read?!

This has never happened, because I always board planes with my messenger bag full of books, magazines, and manuscripts. But that doesn't fully assuage my fear. What if I packed books that I don't like? That really pisses me off. Because they take up space. Especially the hardcovers. I want to tell all these authors who have failed me on planes, I gave up my leg room for you! Seriously. I try not to take any chances with books on planes.

I don't want to rely on airport book stores, so I chose my books in advance, and very carefully. It takes me just as long to pack my books as my clothes and beauty products. The most agonizing decisions are whether or not to take really gripping books that I've almost finished. My need to know how the book ends butts against the fact that I'll be done with it in half an hour or so, and then it will just take up space. I was recently on the fence about whether or not to bring The Center Cannot Hold, a memoir about schizophrenia. I was half way done with it, and though I was enjoying it, the writing seemed uninspired to me, particularly the narrative voice, making it less of a page turner, and it's a hardcover (though one of those small trim hardcovers), so I stared at it for quite some time, and furrowed my brow or whatever, and left it on the floor.

It's like this:

I'm having one of those days characterized by restless over-thinking, so I put together these charts, to share with you my decision making process. (These charts were inspired by Indexed, though they are nowhere near as cool as hers)

I was feeling good about my decision to bring Then We Came To The End on the plane. I was 50 pages in, and really enjoying it. It's not what I would call a page turner, but I wanted to stay in the world, which is narrated in a gossipy and intimate first person plural (we), and had the curious effect of making me nostalgic for my office and office interactions. Honestly, this book will make you miss your 9 to 5, and if you don't have one, it may make you want to go get one. After all, work (not baseball) is the great American past time.

As the cover hints, reading it is sort of like watching Office Space or The Office, but much, much better, and not just because I prefer reading to watching television, but because it's got so much more heart. There are these scenes that are both hilarious and absurd but also really heart wrenching and sad at the same time, like when Pam and Jim feel so bad for Dwight that they spend the weekend at his Bed & Breakfast/farm, except even better. I love it when authors can pull off a scene where you're not sure whether to laugh or to cry - you want to do both at the same time.

So I'm getting really into this book, but then something awful happens - I'm on page 120, and the next page is 185. I thought for a second that maybe this was on purpose, like Joshua Ferris was making some sort of metafictional point? But no, it was true, I was missing 60+ pages. I was pissed. And panicky.

After much deliberation (which I won't put in chart form) I ended up reading the rest of the book anyhow, and I could sort of infer what I'd missed. I got a complete copy after the flight, so I filled in the missing pages. Has this ever happened to y'all? It's like when you rent a movie that's really great, watch 1/4 of it, and then it gets all staticky or something. Except worse, because books are more expensive than movies and you're more invested in the entertainment experience.

Maybe, it's time I got a Kindle.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

I read this book on a four hour plane ride, sitting next to an overly perfumed elderly woman who was reading what appeared to be an 800 page tome titled something like Exploring the Gospel of John. Not the most comfortable circumstances, to say the least. She kept giving my book dirty looks, as if she knew it was making fun of her book. And by the time I finished The Abstinence Teacher, I'm not sure I blamed her.

I had extremely high expectations for this novel. So you know where I'm coming from, let me say right away that I'm not a religious person. However, many of the people I love and care about are. Half of my family are serious Christians - not Left Behind Christians, but they love Jesus and aren't shy about saying so. Because of the various discussions and arguments we've had over the years, I like to think I have a bit of insight into how serious Christians think, and I do my best to treat their beliefs with compassion and respect. I was expecting similar even handedness from The Abstinence Teacher, (especially after reading the NYTBR review where the reviewer claims that Perrotta "gives space and speeches to proselytizers and scoffers alike, letting readers form their own conclusions"), but in this I was disappointed. Perrotta seemed to me to be preaching to the choir, as I imagine most of his readers identify with the non-religious protagonist, Ruth, and I completed the novel with no more insight into fundamentalist Christian sects than when I started.

Don't get me wrong - as someone who's not a fan of organized religion, it was satisfying to read a book where the secular humanist side wins out over the "Jesus freaks." But to be fair, the Jesus contingency weren't putting up much of a fight.

Here's the story: Forty-one year old Ruth Ramsey is a divorced Sex-Ed high school teacher who recently got into trouble for saying that "some people enjoy it" ("it" being oral sex). One of her students, who belongs to the Tabernacle, a new fundamentalist Christian organization that condemns drinking, dancing, premarital sex, homosexuality, and everything else you'd expect, misquotes Ruth as advocating oral sex in the classroom. The Christian community threatens suit, and to appease them, the school adopts a new program of Abstinence (called Wise Choices) that Ruth must teach. Ruth of course, objects to the program, calling it unrealistic and uninformed (one of their stats puts the failure rates of condoms as high as 36%).

In the meantime, Ruth's 10-year-old daughter Maggie is one of the top players on her soccer team. When Ruth attends a game and Maggie's coach, Tim Mason (also a member of the Tabernacle), leads the team in prayer after a victory, Ruth yanks Maggie out of the prayer circle and threatens to take her off the team.

Thus begins the dialog and strange attraction between Ruth and Tim. Their arguments about theology were some of the most anticipated scenes in the novel for me. Here's an exchange that had me particularly interested:

Ruth: "I'm being silly? You're the one trying to sell me a theological system that puts Hitler and Gandhi on the same level."

Tim: "It does not."

Ruth: "According to what you told me, they're both burning in hell for not being Christians."

Tim: "I'm sure God's capable of making a distinction between Hitler and Gandhi."

Ruth: "I hope so. But somebody apparently forgot to mention that in the Bible."

...this continues on, but here's the clinching line...

Tim: "Look, Ruth. You can trap me in a hundred contradictions that smarter people would be able to explain away. But that's not what this is about for me."

This is typically where this type of arguments ends for me, too. What Tim says sums up my frustration with his character - why can't he be one of the "smarter people" that could explain away Ruth's contradictions? Now that's a discussion I'd like to be privy to.

Tim is a recent Christian convert who came to religion once he hit rock bottom. He was an alcoholic and drug addict whose vices cost him his house, wife, and daughter. He seems to have used Jesus as a crutch to begin rebuilding his life - when the story opens he is holding down a full time job, coaching his daughter's soccer team, and has been awarded custody of her once a week. The other Christian characters also seem to have accepted Jesus out of sheer desperation. Pastor Dennis had what could only be described as a psychotic break while working as a Best Buy employee: he went from a functioning member of society to a man who saw a Bible glowing on his desk and was consequently inspired to destroy thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment while screaming things like "Whore!" and "Abomination!" Tim's young Christian wife reveals on her wedding night that not only is she not a virgin, but she once slept with a dozen men in the space of two weeks. The Christian student in Ruth's class is puritanically dour and scowling and bent on taking Ruth down. I eventually had to wonder why there weren't any Christian characters who were more, um, "Christian."

I'm not one to plug Christianity, but I know plenty of people who are mentally and emotionally stable, don't have a history of substance abuse or rampant promiscuity, and still convert to Christianity or are practicing Christians. I understand why Perrotta made the choices he did, because it creates for more contrast and drama, but I'd have been more interested to see a less hypocritical Christian butt up against Ruth.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the novel - I did. I read it in a single sitting, and it kept me turning the pages. The characters are extremely well drawn, especially Ruth. Here's something she said that I particularly enjoyed:

"If there was one thing that rankled about being a woman, it was this conviction, drummed into your head before you had a chance to defend yourself, that it was your job - your obligation - to always look your best, even in situations when you had no logical reason to care."

There are some stylistically genius sections in the book, like when Perrotta alternates between Ruth being stuck in an Abstinence training program, with the assignment to write about "A Sexual Experience That I Regret," and her date with an old high school fling the night before. Ruth mischievously writes about what happened that night - how she turned down the opportunity for sex, and wishes she hadn't. Then there's the blond bombshell promotional speaker from Wise Choices, who speaks at Ruth's high school about her decision to remain a virgin until after marriage. Along with the expected cautionary tales of genital warts and herpes, gonorrhea and AIDS, she presents a slide show of her model boyfriend, both of them in swimwear on some Carri bean island, and says:

"As you might imagine, it's not easy saying no to a superhot guy like Ed. But when it gets hard, I just remind myself of my wedding night, and how amazing it's going to be when I give myself to my husband with a pure heart, a clean conscience, and a perfectly intact body. Because that's going to be my reward, and mark my words, people - it is going to be soooo good, oh my God, better than you can even imagine."

Those of you who have had sex with a male virgin can appreciate how thick the irony is here.

Obviously, the US is sharply divided on religious issues. In this area especially, people seem incapable or unwilling to see things from "the others'" perspective. That's why I think a novel like this has a bigger job to do than just entertain: specifically, it should help all the non-hardcore-Christians that comprise the majority of Perrotta's readership understand just where the rest of the country is coming from with their Chastity Balls, intelligent design, pro-life and pro-death-penalty sentiments, and the overall blurring of the line between Church and State. In this, Perrotta was unsuccessful.

I read The Abstinence Teacher for my book club, and I'm sure they'll have a lot to say about it once we meet. I hope you do too.

Friday, November 16, 2007

What The Dead Know by Laura Lippman

When I read mysteries for pleasure I'm extremely bad at guessing the ending / who done it. Even Jodi Picoult? She always surprises me. Gone Baby Gone the movie? I read the book years ago, and I still managed to forget the climatic twist. I remember reading Ruth Francisco's Good Morning, Darkness and being totally shocked by the ending, even though I should have seen it coming. I have a theory that I somehow, subconsciously or something, obfuscate the clues and conventions of the genre, or avoid thinking about them, so I can guard my moment of surprise. Or maybe, deep down, I just want to please. I want to be the perfect reader - that reader who every writer hopes for - who stays in suspense until the writer hands her the story in a neat package. Or maybe I'm just, um, dense.

So when I figured out the mystery to What The Dead Know a whole ten pages (!!) before it's revealed to the reader, I was quite proud of myself. Am I getting better at this?, I wondered. And if so, it that really a reason to celebrate? I do like surprises, after all.

But enough.

In the opening of this book, a woman is in a car accident. When the police come, she refuses to show any identification, and claims to be one of the Bethany girls, who disappeared from the local mall nearly 30 years ago and were never found.

The facts were these: Easter weekend 1975 Sunny Bethany (15) and Heather Bethany (12) took the bus to the mall and never came home. The mystery woman claims to be the younger sister, Heather Bethany, but can offer no proof, only deliberately vague clues. Detective Infante investigates. There are flashbacks.

The novel is narrated from multiple view points, with the mystery woman (we'll call her Heather) being the main character. She's the most fascinating character by far. We know she's lying about some things, but telling the truth about others, but we don't know which is which. Neither do any of the other characters. Her skill as a liar is shown in this scene, where Heather and Kay are late to a meeting with Heather's lawyer, Gloria:

Heather: ""I'll call her on your cell, explain we're running behind." Without waiting for Kay's agreement, Heather grabbed the phone from the cup holder between the seats and used its received-calls log to find Gloria's number.... "Gloria? It's Heather. We're just getting on the road. Kay's ex-husband was late picking up the kids, and we couldn't very well leave them there, could we?" She didn't give Gloria time to reply. "See you in a few." What a brilliant excuse, Kay thought. She pinned it on someone that no one knows, that no one would think to question.

It took a split second, but the larger implications of this observation seemed to vibrate beneath her tires as she merged onto the long, sweeping exit to Security Boulevard."

I especially like this scene because of how it also connects with the title of the book. If you think about it, What the Dead Know is a resonant title for any mystery, but especially this one. Little by little it comes out that "Heather" has gone by many names. Her story is that she was kidnapped that Saturday afternoon at the mall by a former cop, who killed her older sister and kept her as some sort of sex slave. He completely breaks her; convinces her that her parents would never take her back, and eventually she no longer needs to be restrained. The cop finds an alternate identity for her - that of a child whose family all died in a fire - and enrolls her in a parochial school under the name Ruth Leibig. When Heather/Ruth leaves at the age of 18, the cop shows her how to research death records, take names and social security numbers of dead children, and make their identities her own. Heather/Ruth starts over. Many times.

What the Dead Know was chosen as one of Publishers Weekly's Best Books of the Year last week. Here's their preamble to the contest:

"Three thousand books are published daily in the U.S., and PW reviewed more than 6,000 of them in 2007, in print and online. From that astounding number, we've culled a best books list covering our favorites in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's—150 in all."

Laura Lippman's in great company, with National Book Award winner Dennis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, and Joe Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, which I haven't read but really want to (the book sounds great and he's Stephen King's son). I'm not sure why What the Dead Know was included in the general fiction category instead of the mystery category (mystery winners include Ruth Rendell and Thomas Cook), and I'm also not sure why it's referred to as a thriller in the logline:

"In this outstanding stand-alone thriller, a driver who flees a car accident breathes new life into a 30-year-old mystery—the disappearance of two young sisters at a shopping mall—when she tells the police she's one of the missing girls."

Not to get overly technical, but I always felt that thrillers need to feature an element of danger as a primary part of the plot. Someone needs to be threatened, or in trouble. People should be dying. There should be a ticking clock. Most of this story takes place in the past. There's no killer on the lose, or threat of a repeat crime. One by one, the villains are revealed to be dead or incapacitated. Personally, I don't think of this as a thriller, but whatever.

This book is definitely worth the read. Heather is a great character, and the mystery kept me wondering and turning the pages, though I bet many readers will guess at the ending rather early in the novel. Even so, the reveal is enormously satisfying, as you look back at everything that happened and think, "of course!" There is a sense of what I like to call inevitable surprise. My only complaint is a minor one - none of the other characters were as compelling as Heather. Her mother, father, and Sunny are extremely well drawn (I ached for Sunny), and Lippman does a great job of conveying the parents' grief, but during the sections that belonged to playboy Detective Infante or Kay the social worker, I found myself getting a bit restless. I wanted to spend all my time with the Bethany family. What the Dead Know is as much a close look at familial relationships and how people grieve as it is a "thriller."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

I've had this book on my shelf for over a year, and I was finally done putting it off. I suspected it would be one of those books that would suck me in and force me to put everything else off until I'd finished it, even really basic things like eating, flossing my teeth, responding to the carbon monoxide alarm, etc. And that's basically what happened, except as soon as I finished this book, I immediately began reading it again. So it was a much better/worse book/situation than I had feared.

After reading a book twice, you'd think I'd have a ton to say. But my feelings can be summed up into the type of lovely yet cliched love song lyrics that you hear repeated at weddings and anniversaries and in high school year books and stuff. I love this book, and I'm going to K.I.T. It's just the type of genre blend of noir/fantasy that I like, though I don't know if I'd call it fantasy. It's more imaginative than what fantasy usually implies, in that you won't find any vampires or werewolves or ghosts - it's more of a distopia a la George Orwell or Aldous Huxley or Philip K. Dick. It takes place in a world where asking questions is taboo - almost illegal. The only people who can ask questions come from the Office of the Inquisitor, or they are P.I.s, like the protagonist, Conrad Metcalf. These people carry a license to ask questions. Everyone carries cards that keep track of their karmic levels, and when it gets really low, or down to zero, they go in The Freezer, which is like jail, except not as boring, because you're just frozen for a couple of years or whatever, and you wake up having done your time without any threat of rape or bad food or barbell accidents. I mean, the characters in the novel all feel very threatened by The Freezer, but I personally didn't understand why it was so bad. Don't get me wrong - getting frozen and waking up ten years later, but feeling like ten years ago was just yesterday, that would be disorienting, and you'd have a lot of catching up to do with friends and family and world news, but doesn't it seem preferable to just sitting in jail for ten years?

So the question you should be asking yourselves, while you're reading this book is, is this really a distopia? The jail threat doesn't really seem like a threat - to wake up months or years after your sentence and voila! you're free, and no time has passed. Also, Metcalf is constantly snorting his personalized blend of make, which seemed super rock star to me, and also, the make is completely free. You can pick it up from the makery whenever you run out. The scales are sliding towards utopia. Here's Metcalf's morning routine:

"So I showered an shaved and got my gums bleeding with a toothbrush, then stumbled into the kitchen to cauterize the wounds with some scalding coffee. The mirror was still out, with fat, half-snorted lines of my blend stretching across it like double-jointed white fingers. I picked up the razor blade and steered the drugs back into a wax-paper envelope, and brushed the mirror off with my sleeve."

Except of course the make is dangerous, because nothing good ever comes for free (except maybe consensual back-scratches). Everyone's make is a unique blend of the following ingredients: Acceptol, Forgettal, Avoidol, Regrettol, Believol, whatever, and always Addictol. And certain components of make can be especially debilitating, like Blanketrol:

""They withdrew it when they found out it was completely hollowing out the inner life of the test subjects. The users went on functioning, but just by rote." He pinched at the nose of his glasses again. "Think of it as the opposite of deja vu - nothing reminds you of anything, not even of itself.""

Who's thinking of One Hundred Years of Solitude right now, when the town all gets the insomnia sickness, and forgets what everything is for? To be sure, Gun is nothing like Gabriel Garcia Marquez's books, in fact, the cover blurb on my edition says, "marries Chandler's style and Philip K. Dick's vision," and I'd say that's a very accurate description. Except that Metcalf doesn't take himself as seriously as Marlow, which I really appreciate. It makes him capable of thinking lines like this:

"I was playing this case existential, maybe a bit too existential. I needed a lead. I needed a client. Hell, I even needed a sandwich. There was probably little chance of Celeste Stanhunt coming downstairs and offering me a sandwich."

Or sometimes after delivering a really hard boiled line Metcalf will reflect, "Even I wasn't sure what that meant."

And Lethem turns some of the noir conventions on their ears. For example, Celeste Stanhunt is the desperate blonde who knows too much and intermittently presses up against Metcalf, full of lust. However, years ago Metcalf had this little operation where he switched nerve endings with an ex-girlfriend, supposedly just temporarily, for a night or two, so a woman can feel what it's like to be a man, and vice versa, but the ex ran off before they could have the operation reversed. So Metcalf is left with his male anatomy, but female sensations. At these times the quality of Lethem's imagination reminds me of the most memorable and tastiest little set-ups in Marquez, or even Italo Calvino short stories.

Anyhow, Gun is a brilliant who-done-it set in an inventive near-future. I won't go into the details of the mystery, because the world itself is much more fun to describe, and you'll need to pay close attention to the rules of this world to even have a prayer of solving the mystery before Metcalf does. There are evolved animals, who walk upright on two feet and talk. The muscle for a gangster is provided by a kangaroo, there's a P.I. who's an ape, and there are kittens learning to read and rabbits selling subscriptions door-to-door. There are babyheads, which are an entire generation of babies who were given some sort of evolution therapy to make them grow up faster, but it went wrong somewhere, and the results are somewhat mature adults trapped in the bodies of infants, drinking themselves to oblivion in Baby Bars. There is the Office of the Inquisitor, which just sounds bad-ass and feudal, and where Metcalf used to work, before his conscious got the better of him.

The only thing that didn't work so well for me was that Metcalf didn't seem to have much of a reason to get involved in the case in the first place. He didn't strike me as the type of idealist to defend the innocent just because it's the right thing to do, but in fact, that's what he does. He gets a stronger motive about half way in.

Gun, With Occasional Music is a quick and very cleverly plotted read, with lots of fun jolts to the imagination. And the title eventually makes sense. It takes a long time, but it's well worth the wait.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

To Hype, or Not To Hype

When I started this blog I made some rules:

1) Don't talk about my life as an agent. I'm more interested in talking about my life as a reader.

2) Don't plug my own books. And don't plug our agency's books.*

I've forgotten what the other rules were. I think Don't Talk About Bestsellers was one, and Don't Talk About Authors Who Are Dead; Don't Talk About Books I Hate was definitely a rule; Don't Talk About Books In The Same Genre Over And Over Again; Don't Talk About Books That Have Won the Nobel Prize...

I've probably broken most of these rules by now. And I'm about to break another one to hype one of my clients: Brian Francis Slattery, author of Spaceman Blues: A Love Song.

Spaceman Blues was just published this week, simultaneously in hardcover and trade paperback. I could tell you all about it, or you could just read this great review in The Village Voice, which may be a wee bit more objective than any gushy review I would ever write, (as if book reviews could ever be considered objective - ha!). Brian was also interviewed on NPR's The Leonard Lopate Show , where he gave some very smart answers to some very smart questions.

Yes, I'm bragging.

*Rule #2 is the only thing that keeps me from turning this blog into a Jim Butcher fan site every time the next book in The Dresden Files comes out.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Some books aren't meant to be read in just one or two sittings. I think A Complicated Kindness is one of those books. I read it too quickly, and it pushed me into some sort of scarred Mennonite funk, and my head is buzzing with all the funny and apt and beautiful and poignant quotes I loved. The atmosphere of the book is absolutely oppressive. The main character, 17-year-old Nomi Nickel, talks about how silent and severe the town is, and when she says, "people here just can't wait to die," you feel it in your bones. Reading this book made me feel like I was drowning, and I kept coming up for air, but then, after a short time of reflection, or an actual "real world" conversation, I couldn't help but jump back in.

Miriam Toews is a damn good writer. She tells the story in a pretty linear way, though there is a lot of jumping around, both in terms of flashbacks and moving in and out Nomi's head, and purposefully abrupt scene switches. The bulk of the story is in the flashbacks. Right away we read this great sentence:

"Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing."

And I'm hooked. From there Nomi introduces us to her tiny and totally insular Mennonite community in Canada, where American tourists come in the summers to see how people lived centuries ago (the "simple life"). The town's industry is split between tourism (all of which is faked by teens who wear bonnets and pose knitting by old school fire places or churn butter) and Happy Family Farms, where Nomi is fated to work in an assembly line killing chickens as soon as she graduates high school.

At the time she's telling the story, Nomi is a pissed off and sarcastic teen a la Holden Caulfield. Even so, through flashbacks we meet a younger Nomi who was devoutly Mennonite and fervently prayed for her family. Through these, we see how comforting it can be to be under the wing of a belief system that puts everything in black and white. And there's a sort of Red Tent aspect to the town that's attractive. Sort of. To me at least.

The story begins with Nomi talking about her father, the only member of her immediate family she has left. We learn later that her sister Tash has run off with her boyfriend, and her mother Trudi was excommunicated, and has chosen to leave her family rather than become a "ghost" (Mennonites must shun the excommunicated, and Trudi didn't want to her husband and daughter to have to chose between her and the church). At least that's what we think. At first. To stay away from spoilers, I won't got any further. Just read this passage, which nearly broke my heart:

"The other day I found her [Trudi's] passport in her drawer when I was putting away my dad's laundered handkerchiefs. I wish I hadn't. For the purpose of my story, she should have it with her. I sat on my dad's bed and flipped through page after empty page. No stamps. No exotic locales. No travel-worn smudges or creases. Just the ID information and my mother's black-and-white photo which if it were used in a psychology textbook on the meaning of facial expressions would be labeled: Obscenely, heartbreakingly hopeful."

As the story progresses we learn more about Mennonites, which are named for Menno Simons, and called "Mennos," (at least in Nomi's head). Nomi's uncle, The Mouth, has recently taken over the church (and by extension, the town), and rules with an ultraconservative anti-fun iron fist. By the time Nomi is 17, The Mouth has shut down everything in town except the cinema, and forced all the teachers to follow his own curriculum ("our textbook could have been called Proven Theories We Decry").

Even so, Nomi manages to get a boyfriend and a tobacco addiction and wear halter tops and buy drugs from someone she calls The Comb. And we've got her voice and humor to lighten the mood. And the mood does lift, especially when she's pointing out the absurdities of what's on Menno's shit list and what isn't, and wondering what sort of douchebag names a religious movement after his first name, but promotes total humility. Nomi's voice picks up the humor in trying to hold her family - now just her and her dad Ray - together. Also, check out how Toews doesn't use quotation marks, or any kind of marker, to point out the distinction between dialog and thoughts (like Cormac McCarthy in The Road; another book that gave me the "I'm drowning" sensation) -

"That's cool though, I said thinking Jesus, let's not be the kind of family that tidies up the dump at night. The dump is the dump though Dad, I said. The central idea at work in a dump is that it's not a clean place.
Ray said: Well, yes, but I organize the garbage in a way I feel makes sense."

And then, in a blink, we're right back to heart-wrenching:

"The dump was kind of like a department store for Ray, but even more like a holy cemetery where he could organize abandoned dreams and wreaked things into families, in a way, that stayed together."

Overall, A Complicated Kindness is fairly light on the complications, and on the kindness. It's a rather straight forward condemnation of religious fundamentalism. The church completely wreaks Nomi's family. Ray seems to be the only one who's left with his faith somewhat intact, and he's a very quiet character. I would have liked to have heard more from him.

Instead, the bulk of the complicated feelings are expressed by Nomi and her mother. Toews does a wonderful job of balancing when they are being sarcastic, or criticizing, and when they are being sincere. Someone once told me that no one loses their religion for intellectual reasons, and at the heart of every apostate is a much more personal and emotional beef. That seems right to me. Who turns their back on the comfort and order of an entire belief system just because some fossils and carbon dating techniques contradict the biblical time line? Even once Nomi is well on her way to excommunication, she can't help but pine for religious conviction, and admire those who have it:

"I wanted what she had. I wanted to know what it really felt like to think you were saving someone's life."

I took this statement to be totally lacking in sarcasm.

I got this book from Sarah, who recommended it in this post. The other night we were talking about it, and she made some really good points. It's interesting what stuck in her head as memorable, because it was stuff that I'd completely forgot. Throughout the book, Nomi keeps telling us how bad she is at endings. She writes various essays and papers for her English teacher, Mr. Quiring, and he also tells her she's lousy at endings too. Sarah asked me: "Weren't you disappointed with the ending?"

Me: "Not really. It was sort of anti-climatic, I guess." For some reason, I hadn't given the ending all that much thought. "Maybe I was mildly disappointed."

Sarah: "It seemed like the author was preparing us for a bad ending, because Nomi kept saying how bad she was at endings throughout the book."

Me: "Oh yeah." I'd forgotten about how Nomi said that, even though she said it enough that readers would take note. I'm struck silent by how smart my friends are. I mean, that was a comment for the upper-class lit discussion group. Was Miriam Toews covering her ass by making her "main character" bad at endings? Or would an author purposefully write a less-than-satisfying ending, to give her main character continuity?

I don't know. Here's what I want to know: do y'all think that some books, particularly literary fiction, are meant to be read slowly? We all know that some books are "page-turners," but are there books that are the opposite of page-turners? And I don't mean boring books, or books like Jane Eyre, that took me two months to read. I mean books that you are meant to savor over a longer period of time, like a week or two, and not because you're busy, or you're just not that into it, or because it's a textbook, but because you want to give yourself time to absorb it. Or is that an outdated idea, like the way that people read back before TV and cell phones and electricity?

Is it possible to read a book too fast?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Mystery of the Decapitated Cover Models

I recently discovered Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels' Covers Gone Wild page (which is awesome and hilarious), and it inspired me to do some cover art naval gazing of my own.

There are certain trends in publishing that baffle me. For example, why have there been so many books published in the last few years with the word "daughter" in the title? (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Gravedigger's Daughter, The Bonesetter's Daughter, The Hummingbird's Daughter, The Abortionist's Daughter etc.) And, even more intriguing, what's with all these covers that feature half of some girl's face? Seriously, these covers are everywhere, in every genre. You've already seen the Gossip Girl collection. Here are some more.

Literary / Historical Fiction

Mystery / Thriller

Science Fiction / Fantasy

Biographies and auto-biographies get full faces. History books get full faces. All in all, I'd venture to say that writing non-fiction increases your chance of getting a full face on your cover.

But then there are books like Mary, about Mary Todd Lincoln, by a first time author, which scored a full face, even though it's fiction. Isabelle Allende gets full faces. Authors like Jodi Picoult (My Sister's Keeper) and Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood) come perilously close to having uninterrupted faces on their covers. And A.M. Homes' new book - The Mistress's Daughter - gets a full frontal face! Something is afoot.

As I've hinted at in previous posts, Jane Eyre always gets a full face. Why? Who better to benefit from our current trend of decapitation than Jane Eyre?

I was having lunch last week with an editor, and she gave me a book I've been wanting to read. On the cover is a teenage boy wielding a sword. The boy has no head. The cover cuts off right at his neck. I couldn't help myself - I had to put it out there: what's up with all these headless models? The editor explained that B&N wants covers with live models (as opposed to scenery, or abstract painting, or an icon). Sometimes, the models aren't quite the right age (I'm guessing this is the case re: Gossip Girls), but if you cut off part of their face, voila! Youth. You can slice away the years. From the Gossip Girls we learn that we all look our youngest around the mouth.

Also, perhaps it's less expensive to use half a face than the whole face.

Please chime in. I'm a sucker for a good conspiracy theory.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Jane Eyre: The Comeback

Right around page 200, when Mr. Rochester impersonates an old gypsy woman, Jane Eyre sunk it's claws into me. I couldn't stop reading this book - in the bathroom, waiting in line for a sandwich, on various modes of public transportation, very late at night, over breakfast - Jane Eyre and I have been inseparable these past few days.

I overcame with ease my baser nature in order to love this book. I skimmed over the narrator's recurrent use of the verb "ejaculated" to describe people rushing in and out of rooms, or conversing, (words ejaculating from one's mouth) with nary a Beevis and Butthead snicker. I didn't trip over Mr. Rochester's way of calling Jane his "little friend" (are you not my little friend?), which seems oddly contemporary ghetto to me (like, if I started dating one of the construction workers on my block, maybe he'd call me his little friend?). And let us not forget that I publicly advertised my passionate reading of a book with this cover:
Another member of my book club read the Penguin edition with this cover:
Notice that Jane Eyre looks like she could be attractive in this edition - maybe if someone took the doily off her neck, and put her in a dress that had less of a parachute effect. This book club member finished the book nearly six weeks before I did. Dear Reader, is there a connection?

Jane Eyre is ugly. Mr. Rochester is ugly. But it doesn't matter, because they see each other as beautiful / handsome. This is true love, which is, after all, blind. Jane is sensible enough to know that Mr. Rochester is not a handsome man, or even a moral man, but she comes to love his every imperfection in a way that turns it into a fetish. We've all turned this corner before in relationships - where it becomes impossible to see your lover's receding hairline, or ability to spend an entire Saturday without leaving the couch as anything less than adorable.

Jane Eyre became a powerful aphrodisiac for me, as it accomplishes what most contemporary romance novels don't. In category romance the hero and heroine are younger and way more attractive than the reader could ever hope to be, and have only minor baggage / issues. The real difficulty, as a writer, is coming up with a reason for these two characters, who are obviously perfect for each other, to stay apart / hate each other for most of the novel. In Jane Eyre, Rochester is married to a lunatic, so obviously they can never be together! They are totally hot for each other, but all these morals and bigamy laws get in the way. So much sexual tension = so much gratitude for twenty-first century relationships.

Another thing I really came to love was Jane Eyre's no nonsense attitude. Rochester tells her she's beautiful, or compliments her and she's like, I know I'm plain, and I'm over it, so stop flattering me, let's talk about something else, okay? And the narrator really doesn't let you forget that Jane isn't cute. She reunites with a nanny she had as a child, and the nanny says something like, wow, Jane, I thought that maybe you would bloom into an attractive woman when you grew up, but what a disappointment that hope turned out to be. Or when Jane's recuperating with the Rivers, and she overhears Mary and Diana talking about how ill-planned her face is. She never lets this get her down though.

So, I have to say, Amanda, wherever you are (probably Chicago), I get why this is your favorite book. It's not my favorite book, due to some pretty serious nineteenth century pacing issues in the first 200 pages, but I get it. I get Jane Eyre. In a photo finish I completed it a mere day before the Book Club Deadline, July 15th. And it felt good.

I'm gonna go rent the movie now.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

A couple of days ago I finished up Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. It wasn't as difficult to get through as Jane Eyre (which I'm still working on; made it to Volume II; 153 pages and counting!), but I didn't exactly speed through it either. I picked it up, not knowing anything about Ishiguro other than he wrote The Remains of the Day, which won the Man Booker Prize, and that Never Let Me Go has sci-fi/fantasy elements. Sounded like a great combo to me.

This book is very, very slow. Have y'all seen that movie The Island, with Scarlett Johansson and Ewan McGregor, who are in this sort of self contained dome where everyone is wearing white track suits and drinking protein shakes, and they can't ever go outside because supposedly the world has been contaminated/destroyed, but they break free, because they are intrepid Americans, and figure out that the world is just fine and they are clones, or "insurance policies" for really rich people, and when the time comes, whoever cloned them will harvest their organs, like Scarlett Johansson is a clone for this model who wants new skin, and Ewan McGregor is a clone for this guy who has some disease, maybe AIDS or something resulting from wild sex in his youth, I don't remember all the details, because at this point the movie became absolutely ridiculous and I stopped paying attention. But the premise of the The Island - that people can clone themselves and create living insurance policies, and what if those "insurance policies" escape? - is really cool; right out of a Philip K. Dick or Robert Sheckley short story.

Never Let Me Go has a very similar premise. The main character, Kathy, is looking back on the minutia of her life; in particular, her time at Hailsham, a sort of boarding school for "very special" students (i.e. clones). Right from the start of this novel a sense of paranormal or irreality is established, because I kept thinking, in what sort of world are really boring memories and details like this important? Do I really need to be paying close attention here? Ooh, they just said "maths," is that like, sci-fi, or just British?

Kathy introduces us to Tommy, another of the main characters, by talking about how he had this nice blue shirt, and he kept getting mud on it, and damn won't he be out of sorts when he finds out. But when he finds out, he's only mildly disappointed. Whew! Kathy narrates like an absent minded senior citizen, constantly saying stuff like, oh, before I tell you about this, you really need to know about that (yes, she uses the second person, just like she's talking to me, which is a device I almost always find annoying), and then she'll finally come around to the point, which will be something really anti-climatic anyhow, (like, will Kathy ever find that cassette tape she lost?) or she'll just lead into a new chapter with another rambling story.

Ishiguro uses cliff-hanger sentences like these to get your hopes up that something is going to happen soon:

"So I wasn't prepared at all for what happened at the churchyard several days later."


"But then everything changed again, and that was because of the boat."

By the time this boat was mentioned, on page 215, I was on to Ishiguro, and I didn't fall for his little trick. I knew that nothing was going to happen because of that boat, and that the boat scene would let me down, like all the other false promises scattered throughout this book.

In a similar way, Ishiguro keeps the reader in suspense about the novel's fantasy world and how it works for way too long. In the first third of the book, everyone at Hailsham is very focused on being creative. They create art, poems, stories, whatever, and it's this very big deal that everyone takes seriously, except for Tommy, who has a temper, and doesn't seem to like art, and so doesn't participate in the Exchanges (where students trade their work with each other). Nobody knows why it's so important for the students to create this art, especially not the reader, who keeps dutifully turning the pages and waiting, waiting, waiting for some sort of pay-off. Every so often, Madame comes and takes the best of the students' art for her Gallery. No one knows what this Gallery is for. Never Let Me Go is an extremely quiet novel, full of nuance, and in all honestly, not my type of read. Why don't these kids run away or something, like Scarlett and Ewan? Why don't they do something that would give this book more of a plot?!

Really, there's no pay-off for the reader, or even a clear idea of how the world works until the very end, when as adults, Kathy and Tommy hunt down Madame, and confront her in her house. This scene is actually pretty damn heartbreaking, so in true Kathy style, I better back up and give you some backstory:

At this point, you've picked up on the fact that Kathy, Tommy, and friends are clones, and were cloned from the dregs of the society - drunks, homeless people, drug addicts, prostitutes: ostensibly people who won't talk and give these secrets away. (I kept hoping one of these people would have cleaned up and sought out their clone, but alas, Ishiguro keeps it way too real). You also know that they were cloned to have their organs harvested at some later date. You also know that there's been this rumor going around, that if two people can prove that they are in love, then they can get a deferral for five years, and they can live in peace and not have to continue donating all their vital organs until they "complete."

So Kathy and Tommy show up at Madame's house and tell her their theory about The Gallery, that it's used to substantiate a couple's claim that they are really in love. Madame laughs at them and says, no, we took that art to prove to the scientific community that y'all clones have souls, and that you deserved to be treated humanely up until it's time to harvest all your organs to cure cancer. But now that Hailsham's closed down, we've gotten rid of The Gallery. No one believes that clones ought to be nurtured anymore.

This big reveal was too close to what I suspected to be surprising and fulfilling. And afterwards, Kathy and Tommy just go on with their lives. Tommy completes after his fourth donation. Kathy takes a long drive and mulls over her memories.

I realize that my comments imply that I'm trying to turn this quiet, evocative, and sometimes effecting novel into a Hollywood action movie, or yet another work of American Values that affirms the undeniable pull of freedom, and our right to blaze our own paths, determine our own futures, even for clones. That's not exactly what I'm saying. Never Let Me Go just seemed too much like real life. Which is a great compliment, or a great criticism, depending on what you're looking for in fiction.

*Other books I've read by authors who've won the Man Booker Prize:

Man Booker: A Prize for Thorough Introspection.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

The Bigger They Come, by A.A. Fair

For reasons I won't go into, I've been on this kick where I want to read mysteries with fat female detectives, a la The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. My boss recommended this book, which, as you can see from the cover, is written by Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. I couldn't find any cover art of this book on-line, so I just took a picture of it. It was originally published in 1939 by William Morrow. My edition was published in 1943 by Pocket Books. Brand new, it cost 45 cents. On the back of the book is an ad for Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl, which "was for many weeks a record seller!" It cost 75 cents brand new.

But back to the fat female detective: The Bigger They Come has a great one - Bertha Cool, of the Cool Detective Agency. She's self-possessed, no-nonsense, cheap as hell, and astoundingly fat. She's summed up nicely here:

"Mrs. Cool, perfectly at ease, continued to hold down the desk with her elbows. She had that motionless immobility which characterizes the very fat. Thin people are constantly making jerky motions to alleviate the nervous pressure which possesses them. Mrs. Cool didn't have a fidget in her system. When she sat down, she was placed. She had the majesty of a snow-capped mountain, and assurance of a steam roller."

The narrator is Donald Lam, a penniless shrimp of a man who doesn't weigh a pound over 120, and is hired as "The Muscle" for the Cool Agency. Yeah, I know, I know - A Bertha "Cool" and Donald "Lam" Mystery, but whatever, I didn't let it bother me.

Lam is hired by Cool to serve a man named Morgan Birks with divorce papers. The problem is that Morgan's a fugitive, so he's in hiding. His wife, Sandra Birks, refers Lam to her brother Bleatie to help find him. Despite a recent car accident that has left Bleatie's head in a bandage, he leads Lam to Morgan's lover, who in turn leads Lam to a hotel, where she will ostensibly meet with Morgan. Lam waits in the room next door to Morgan's lover for Morgan to appear.

In the meantime, Sandra and Bleatie show up at the hotel too. Sandra can't wait to give Morgan a piece of her mind, and Bleatie is there for suspicious reasons - it seems like he's working for Morgan, and is very afraid of being accused of having led Lam and Sandra to Morgan. When Morgan finally shows up, Lam serves him the papers, Sandra screams at him and his lover, and Bleatie pleads for forgiveness. It's quite a scene. The job is over. Except, of course, it's not. It's really just began.


Lam gets kidnapped by toughs the minute he steps outside of the hotel, and the plot, as they say, thickens. I won't go into all the details, except to say the Lam deduces from a fashion faux-pas that Bleatie and Morgan are the same person! It's an almost Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or What Not to Wear moment, when Lam reasons, "would a guy with a two inch diameter bald spot really part his hair down the middle? Of course not!" With that, the whole head bandage / broken nose disguise falls apart. This was a great moment, and, it seemed to me, one that a writer today would never try and pull off. It's my theory that today's writers think in much more cinematic terms, and some part of their minds are picturing the movie adaptations of their book when they write. This technique - where one character is pretending to be two people - is hard to pull off on screen, so I wonder if writers who've considered it have just let it drop. Not that they didn't have television in 1939, but it wasn't the cultural centerpiece that it is today.


But that great Ah-Ha moment is only the half way point in the unfolding of the plot. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that Lam was disbarred for claiming to know a legal loophole in which you can commit murder and get away with it. And true to his word, Lam shows us, quite brilliantly, how it's done.

Between Lam's brains and Bertha's size and poise, this was a great read for me. It's the most ingeniously plotted mystery I've read in a while, though I must admit to getting a little bogged down with the legal intricacies of Lam's murder-without-consequence scheme. But I've already ordered the next two books in the Bertha Cool - Donald Lam series.

It's impossible for me to read a book this old and not wonder about what the publishing environment was like when it was published, and how much the business has changed since. I've been reading this print-out from Columbia University called Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975 - 2002 by Gayle Feldman (thanks Stephen!). Even though 1939 and 1975 don't have very much in common, they are both Before My Time In The Publishing Industry, so I thought I'd share some of the more interesting stats in this report:

-"The number of new books being published each year increased more than 300%, from 39,000 in 1975 to 122,000 in 2000....[however] total unit sales only increased 150%, from 955 million in 1975 to almost 2.5 billion in 2000. The overall title/unit sales ratio, therefore, effectively shows a decrease in sales."

-"Book prices have risen in every format....Mass market paperback prices have quadrupled since 1975."

-"In the past, we'd sell ten mass market paperbacks for every hardcover. Today we sell two mass markets for every hardcover. We sell one trade paperback for every hardcover, except for the exceptions of course!" - Carolyn Reidy

(This is the fault of Boomers, who like to buy Hardcovers)

-"In 1975, novels had long stays on the bestseller list; in 2000, more novels made the list but generally enjoyed far shorter stays, with a few exceptions."

-"Twenty-five years ago, a book's shelf life was far longer. Today, many new books only stay on the shelf for three months, and in some cases, even less."

-"And acquiring big books became the badge of the successful editor. Farrar, Straus's Elisabeth Sifton says that by the 1990's, it was clear that "editors were valued for the deals they could do, not for work well done or talent nurtured."

Unfortunately, the stats I find interesting could also be considered depressing. I'm not one of those Doom and Gloom people, out predicting the apocalypse of the publishing industry. Just chew on this.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Jane Eyre: A Call To Arms

I was up on the roof with some friends, and friends of friends, and conversation turned to Jane Eyre. Actually, I turned the conversation to Jane Eyre, which I've been trying to read, along with my book club, for the last two months.

Me: (casually) "So, have y'all read Jane Eyre?"

Everyone: (including some really masculine guys with deep voices and ESPN subscriptions): Resounding yes.

Girl named Amanda: "I've read it three times; it's my favorite book of all time!"

Crap. You can't throw a stone without hitting someone whose favorite book of all time is Jane Eyre. I mean, the book must rival the Holy Bible in terms of copies sold. But my book club (which, in all fairness, only consists of three people, including me) hasn't been able to get hooked. Why?

Me: "Yeah, well, I'm having trouble getting into it, because, you know, it's pretty slow, I mean the story doesn't start until page 100 or so, with Mr. Rochester's horse slipping on the ice scene" (murmurs from the crowd; one of the ESPN subscribers stares at me, looks away, and shakes his head sadly; I start to backpedal fast) - "I mean, what's wrong with me? This is obviously a great book, a seminal book, and I can't get into it. I think it might be because I already know the story? You know, I've seen a couple of movie and made-for-TV adaptations, and the story is such a big part of our culture, that maybe I just had expectations that were way too high..."

Everyone: (exchanging meaningful glances with each which clearly question my ability to participate in Western Civilization) "Jane Eyre is a great book... but it's not for everyone..." (like, not for dumbasses)

Me: "Yeah, because I read a lot of genre fiction, so I like stories that are fast paced." (This point is undermined by my participation in a previous discussion about Philip Roth. Damn!)

Amanda: "Well, you should read it in conjuction with The Wide Sargasso Sea, which is the story of the crazy lady in the attic."

God, a Jane Eyre spin off? I struggle to keep my mounting alarm off my face. Please, please don't let my book club find out about this...

Amanda: (beginning to truly feel sorry for me)"And I read Jane Eyre when I was on this whole women's studies kick..."

Yeah, the Brontes were real feminists for their time. "Their time" being a really long time ago. I'm a feminist, I love feminists, I love feminist books (most of them), but I want to read something more contemporary. Maybe if Jane Eyre was embroiled in a fight against her new evil and sexist health insurance company, which charges a minimum of $40.00 for birth control, and only five bucks for generic there's something I can really relate to. There's some feminism I can really get behind.

Me: "Yeah, I can see that, totally. It's just hard for me to read. And I really want to read it. The other night, I read thirty pages, and got this wonderful sense of accomplishment - I felt really fulfilled, in a literary way - like how you might feel after running a marathon, or scoring a goal" (my attempt at sports analogies and "literary stamina" go ignored), "but I still don't feel a strong urge to pick it back up."

Later, back in the apartment with my boyfriend, I can't let it go.

Boyfriend: "The problem is that you're reading it wrong. You can't just read it before bed, or on your lunch break, or when you have free time. You need to make a commitment. You need to read at least a hundred pages at a clip. You need to let yourself get lost in Jane Eyre's world."

My boyfriend is full of surprising and unacknowledged bursts of wisdom. I'm speechless.

But not for long.

Me: "Um, you're right. You're right. But look" (I can't stop myself, even though my arguments are getting thinner and thinner), "I think the real problem is that the two main characters are unattractive, and the narrator does nothing to hide that, and I'm a shallow 21st century bitch. I mean, look at this cover! Who wants to read about this girl?" (I am shaking the book precariously close to his calm and lovely face. Really, couldn't the Jane Eyre art department take a clue from Chick Lit?)

Boyfriend: (Shrugs). "I don't think she's unattractive. By the end, I thought she was attractive."

Great. I'm mildly disturbed by my boyfriend's taste in women, but I soldier on:

Me: "Maybe my problem with Jane Eyre is that I credit it with spawning the romance genre, and you know that I've been irrevocably traumatized by reading too many of my grandmother's romance novels at a young and tender and impressionable age..." (this is true, my Middle School Dating Strategies were formulated soley based on cowboy romances)

Boyfriend: "I don't think you can credit Jane Eyre with creating the whole romance genre. There were a lot of other authors who contributed..." (begins to list authors...I sigh loudly in defeat)

I'm all out of arguments. I must embrace Jane Eyre or alienate myself from all of my friends, to say nothing of Western Culture. All at once, I feel a surge of sympathy for Tall Katie, a friend I had years ago who claimed to dislike Catch 22. Obviously, we knew she was just lying to get attention. How is it possible to feel anything but intense love and admiration for Catch 22?!

This is a call to arms. All who are struggling through Jane Eyre unite! All who have lied about having read this book, and having loved it, tell your story as an anonymous comment! I know I'm not alone! I can't be the only one.

In the meantime, I will keep on trying. Our book club has set a deadline of July 15th: Jane Eyre or bust.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Hands down, the darkest book that I've read since, um, I don't know. This may very well be the darkest book I've ever read. I mean, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot scared the shit out of me, and I still have the occasional nightmare about my best friends turning into vampires and levitating outside the window of my fourth floor apt. window, but here's the thing: there are no vampires in Sharp Objects. Nothing supernatural. It's real. And really disturbing.

Naturally, being a drawn-to-the-dark-side kind of girl, I absolutely loved this book. It didn't quite give me nightmares, but I had very vivid and creepy dreams while I was reading it. Flynn creates such a strong sense of atmosphere that it's jarring to put the book down and realize that you're wedged in a > 600 square foot apartment, don't have a gorgeous and cruel ice-queen mother or word scars cut all over your skin, and aren't a chronic bourbon drinker.*

The voice is spare and honest, and the characters are shamelessly fucked up. There are no good people in this book. Well, I suppose I should say that there are no good women. Flynn admits to adoring evil stepmothers and wicked queens from the Brothers Grimm, and casually confesses that she was not a nice little girl. She's set out to write a story about female violence, and the uniquely destructive relationships between women - a type of viciousness that is wholly feminine. Here's an excerpt from the novel that doesn't quite make that point, but gives a sharp piece of insight nonetheless:

"Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman's body experiences. Tampons and speculums. Cocks, fingers, vibrators and more, between the legs, from behind, in the mouth. Consumed. Men love to put things inside women, don't they? Cucumbers and bananas and bottles, a string of pearls, a Magic Marker, a fist. Once a guy wanted to wedge a telephone receiver inside of me. I declined."

Flynn's main character, Camille Preaker, is a cutter who cuts words into her skin like cherry, virgin, cunt, yelp. She can feel certain words pulse on her skin depending on circumstance and mood - words like punish, wicked, lipstick. She's been a cutter so long, and with such ferocity, that the only clear spot left on her body (other than her face) is a small unmarked circle in the center of her back where she can't reach with a blade.

At the start, Camille is called back to her small home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, when her boss at a Chicago newspaper asks her to report on the murder of one nine-year-old girl, and the disappearance of another. Shortly after Camille comes to town the second girl is found. Both girls had been strangled, had their teeth pulled out, and then arranged lovingly to be found (lip gloss applied, hair brushed, eyebrows plucked). Camille hasn't been back to Wind Gap in over eight years. Needless to say, her homecoming stirs up a lot of memories (not the least of which is the death of her younger sister when Camille was eighteen) and strains her extremely disfuctional relationship with her mother.

The town of Wind Gap is best summed up on page 74:

"I didn't mind the idea of spilling Wind Gap's stories to Richard [out of town cop character]. I felt no particular allegiance to the town. This was the place my sister died, the place I started cutting myself. A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It's the kind of place that leaves a mark."

Overall, Stephen King put it best in his blurb: "...Then, after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave. An admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights."

Over two months after I read it, Sharp Objects is still "coiled and hissing" in my head. This is an extremely powerful book that I'd recommend to anyone who likes their fiction dark and thoughtful.** And NASTY.

*Actually, this book played a key role in kicking off my love affair with Woodford Reserve.
**In case you're one of those readers wondering what I mean by Literary Mysteries, this would be one. Not only is the writing great, but Sharp Objects deals with a lot of serious social issues, along with other fascinating issues.

PS - I picked this book up at BEA 2006, and it took me almost a year to realize what's on the cover - an old school razor blade! (No, I have no idea what I thought it was....some Rorschach thing?)

PSS - If reading Nineteen Minutes made you never ever want to have sons, Sharp Objects will make you never want to have daughters.