Friday, December 26, 2008

Title Ten: The Amber Room by Steve Berry

Two of my favorite genres are historical fiction and mystery, and Steve Berry has created a niche for himself by fusing the two. I've read The Romanov Prophecy, which is based on the lingering belief that Anastasia Romanov did not perish along with the rest of her family and that an heir to the Russian throne still exists; I've also enjoyed The Third Secret, the title of which refers to the three prophecies given to three children at Fatima by the Blessed Mother. Berry takes the fundamentals of historical events and then weaves mystery around them.

The Amber Room focuses on the looting and theft of art and other treasures by the Nazis in WWII. According to the legend, the famed Amber Room in St. Petersburg was dismantled, packed, and shipped off to the mountains of Germany for hiding in the spring of 1945; it has never been found since, although a re-creation was unveiled at the Catherine Palace a few years ago. For the purposes of the novel, Berry creates a strange underground world where collectors and aficionados send their hired guns around the world to steal objets d'art that are long presumed destroyed or irretrievable. The Holy Grail of these is the Amber Room itself. When her father is killed by one of these Acquisitors, Atlanta judge Rachel Cutler and her ex-husband Paul are pulled into the rollercoaster search after finding letters and references to his involvement in the Amber Room mystery tucked in with his will.

Berry has certainly done his research, but the story is hobbled by too many characters, too much art history, and a winding narrative. The political subtexts are confusing and distracting; we know that the Nazis and Stalin were bad, Communism was a failure, and that the fall of the Iron Curtain created sociopolitical issues that are still affecting the world today, so stop grinding the details into my brain. The anvillicious and florid descriptions of the landscapes of Germany and the Czech Republic are annoying, and the underlying romantic conflict between the Cutlers is superfluous fluff.

While the fate of the real Amber Room has never been discovered, Berry makes certain to tie everything up in a neat package. There are a few minor twists towards the end, but I really just kept plugging away at the novel to find out what his conclusion would be. I could have cheated and just skipped to the end, but when I start a book I finish it. I guess that's all the recommendation that you need.

For a brief but informative summary on the history of the real Amber Room, check out

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Title Nine: March by Geraldine Brooks

For readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the patriarch of the March family is more of an idea than a reality for most of the first half of the novel, as he is off with the Union army ministering to the soldiers as a chaplain. There are hints that Mr. March was, at one time, a man of some fortune, but the family is rather on the poor side at the time that we first meet them and no real backstory is ever provided. Nor is the character of Mr. March fleshed out much more than as the benevolent head of the household, a learned man who gently guides his wife, Marmee, and four daughters in their day-to-day lives through his letters and later his presence after he returns from the war.

After reading Brooks' March, I could only wish that she had left Alcott's masterpiece alone. Instead, she takes it upon herself to tell the story of a man who should have been remembered with vague affection, and instead is revealed to be a naive, weak-willed, gullible, and selfish narcissist. He stubbornly believes that he knows what is best for the people around him, whether it be the welfare of the slaves at a plantation he visits during his early years as a peddler (taking it upon himself to teach a slave child her letters after being expressly forbidden by the master to do so); his wife, whom he marries for her high spirits and keen mind but then tries to subdue when she will not behave as he believes a wife should; his family, when he squanders his entire fortune giving money to the rebel John Brown and is reduced to moving them into little more than a shack; his daughters, who are forced to go out and work to support the household after his folly; and the men around him in the army, to whom his idealism and sense of self-righteousness do more harm than good and lead to his transfer from his regiment because, essentially, no one can stand the man.

In the course of the war, March cheats on his wife with a slave named Grace, whom he had met many years before on that plantation, and justifies it in this way:

"There are many things I have told myself since, in exculpation for what I felt at that moment. I have tried to plead that fatigue had blurred my judgment; that amid so much death the body's compulsion to reach for life, to the very act of generation, could not be gain-said. This much is true: at that moment I believed that the most moral act I could perform would be the one that would unite us, completely. I wanted to give the lie to every claim of difference save the God-ordained one of Genesis: man an woman created he them.

But this, also, is true: I wanted her. The thought of her - arched, shuddering, abandoned - thrilled me to the core."

EW. When I was young, I adored Little Women and wanted a father like the March girls had. Reading this passage was like hearing my parents have sex. I gag a little each time I think about it.

Eventually March falls ill and is sent to a war hospital in Washington, which is where Marmee March comes in. The second half of the novel is told from her perspective, and she learns the truth of everything from Grace, who is now a nurse with the army. Because she has no other choice, she sacks up, tends to her husband, and carries on with her marriage as though she hasn't been shattered in a way that can never be mended.

Honestly, as a reader who has loved Little Women so well and for so long, I wish that I'd never picked up this tripe. I remember reading the dreadful "sequel" to Gone with the Wind and thinking "ugh, what shit," but it didn't ruin my favorite book because the events of Margaret Mitchell's beautiful saga were fixed, and Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett couldn't take away from that. On the other hand, reading March cast a sort of pall over a character and a novel that I had enjoyed for over twenty years. The moral of this review? If you see a book that is trying to ride the coattails of a beloved classic, back away slowly, boys and girls. Just back away.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I know that it looks around these here parts like I'm lazy, but that's so not the case - I promise. I have three books that I need to review, but real life is interfering and when I sit down I can't put two thoughts together so I'm going to put this on hold for another week or so.

I know you're all devastated. Please try to compose yourselves.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Title Eight: The Godmother by Carrie Adams

Oh, British chick lit. How ya doin'? Tessa King is a single lawyer in her 30s who quit her job and went to an ashram to get over the horror of being stalked by her boss (did she read Eat Pray Love too?) and has just come home to find her friends all crazy-like. Of course, she's the only single one, but she's godmother to four of her friends' kids, and now she has a hankering to get her one of them there babies everyone's talking about. Tick, tick, tick, says Tessa's clock. However, Tessa can't quite let go of being that fun, drunk, takes-home-one-night-stands friend. Besides, there don't seem to be any suitable men around. Anyway, with so much going on with her friends, who has time to find a man and make a baby?

Tessa's circle of friends saves this book from being annoying, navel-gazing dreck and gives it real bones. Fran and Nick have been Tessa's friends forever, along with Ben, who is married to Sasha. Fran and Nick's son, Caspar, is a 16 year old wiseass and Tessa's first godson who wins a place in my heart by making a TARDIS reference on page 170 (yes, I dogeared it). Al and Claudia are trying to get pregnant, and there is a heartwrenching chapter that deals with the results of that. Helen has been one of Tessa's closest friends since the two met on a drug-enhanced visit to China Beach in college, and she is probably the best character in the novel, even if she is married to a pig named Neil and completely drained by her newborn twin boys. The biggest heartbreak of all centers on Helen and I freely admit to weeping in my tub when I read it. Providing backup is Tessa's old friend Billy, a single mother whose precocious daughter Cora is another gem.

Of course, The Godmother has some of the requisite hijinks - otherwise how would it sell to bored housewives? - posh mummies are vapid; one-night stands are sorely regretted in the morning; boozy afternoons go awry; foreign doormen are angels in disguise. Thankfully, while the first third of the novel is rather heavy on the standard plot points, it begins to expand as the focus shifts from Tessa to her friends.

Essentially, the book is more about Tessa's friends than Tessa, which I found incredibly refreshing. The trick to Adams' debut novel is that those friends are revealed bit by bit, and all through Tessa's eyes. As the story progresses more secrets are exposed; more cobwebs are brushed away; more light is shed on things long kept in the dark. Both Tessa and the reader figure out that the facade is paper-thin and gives way at the least pressure, and what is underneath is so much more than you could ever expect.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Title Seven: The Pagan Stone by Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts' name is virtually synonymous with the romance novel. She is also one of the most prolific mass market writers today; between the Nora Roberts standalone novels, trilogies, novellas, and the futuristic In Death series - written under the pseudonym J.D. Robb - she churns out three or four new books a year. Unlike James Patterson, she does it alone. Her writing remains sharp, funny, and spicy, which is why she has such a rabid fan base. Unfortunately, over the last couple of years, her plotlines seem to be wearing thin.

The Pagan Stone is the final installment in the Sign of Seven trilogy. Over 300 years ago, a "guardian" named Giles Dent battled a demon in the form of a man named Lazarus Twisse at a place that has come to be called the Pagan Stone by the locals of Hawkins Hollow, Maryland. At midnight on July 7, 1987, three best friends celebrated their tenth birthday by camping out at the Pagan Stone and performing a childish ritual to become "blood brothers." In doing so, Cal Hawkins, Fox O'Dell, and Gage Turner unleashed Twisse, who comes back for one week every seven years to infect and wreak havoc and terror on the town. The townspeople kill, rape, steal, loot, off themselves and create general mayhem. After the "Seven," as the men have come to call it, a sort of amnesia sets in and no one remembers quite what has happened except for this little band who have charged themselves with protecting the town. I was hooked by the premise of the story from the first book, Blood Brothers, and it kept my attention through act two, The Hollow.

Since this novel is the third and final piece of the story, most of the plot is established. Three women have come to join the men in their little quest, and in predictable fashion, Cal has already paired off with the lovely Quinn Black and Fox is hooked up with sassy Layla Darnell. You already know that Gage is going to end up with the exotic Cybil Kinski, because there's a formula to these things. Personally, I don't read the books for the romance and sex, because predictability bores me. I read them for the characters, and this is Gage's book. He's a poker-playing, ladies'-man badass who grew up the son of the town drunk and lit out as soon as he could, but he comes back every Seven out of love and loyalty for Cal and Fox. The three men are descendents of Dent; their ancestors are Dent's triplet sons by Ann Hawkins, daughter of the town's founder. Gage's mother died when he was a kid and with a father who beat him just for the hell of it, Cal and Fox are the closest thing Gage has to family. That's about all of the character development that we get from Gage. According to legends and lore, dreams and visions, our merry sextet has to figure out how to end Twisse for good this time or he will come back to full power (or something like that). Obviously they do just that, because bored women don't want unhappy endings where the heroes die and the bad guy wins. I actually wanted something like that to happen; I would have been cool with Gage having to give his life for the sake of the greater good, if only to break up the monotony.

To be honest, I was looking forward to getting answers and resolution from this book, but all it really did was confuse me. It's almost like Roberts was humming along, knocked out the first two books, and then ran out of steam on this one so she just kind of said, "Okay, Gage can see the future, so he believes that he has to die for them to win, and he's gonna bang Cybil, and fall in love with her even though he doesn't want to, and make up with his father, and then there will be some fire and somebody will almost die and they'll all live happily ever after. And eat cake."

I think that my biggest issue with the trilogy in particular and Roberts' books as a whole is the fact that they always have to have that fairytale marriage/babies/ride off into the sunset ending. Why can't I have a romance novel where the characters don't fall madly in love after a few weeks and plan weddings a mere four months after they meet? Give me a couple in love who are content to just shack up for a while and see where life takes them. (Interestingly, Fox's parents are a couple of hippies who never bothered to tie the knot.) Given the fact that Gage and Cybil are both free spirited roamers, is it really necessary that they decide to head for Vegas and a Little White Chapel? Can't they just say, "Hey, we're in love, we're going to have a baby, and we're just going to travel around like a little nomad family because that's the way we're wired." I guess I'm just looking for a happy ending that doesn't necessarily end with a white dress, birdseed, and a baby coach.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Title Six: The Suspect by John Lescroart

Full disclosure: I currently owe the Free Library of Philadelphia over $100 in fines, and am too broke to pay them. Hence, I need to find my reading materials around the house. Not that there is a dearth of books here; quite the opposite. It's just that I've read nearly everything on the shelves, in the cupboards, and under the beds so in order to review fresh material I've been picking up books that I've avoided for one reason or the other.

In the case of John Lescroarts's The Suspect, I had a very good reason for that avoidance. This legal "thriller" is the literary equivalent of an Ambien - it'll put you to sleep fast but you come to four hours later wondering what the hell the point was. In a nutshell: hotshot doctor/innovator Caryn Dryden is found dead in her hot tub two days after telling her spineless husband, outdoor writer Stuart Gorman, that she wants a divorce. As anyone who has seen ten minutes of any Law & Order episode knows, the spouse is always the first suspect. Even though Stuart was out of town at the time of Caryn's death, it's not enough to establish an alibi. Enter a detective with an attitude, a defense lawyer who's been out of the game for a long while, a lawmaker with ties to the deceased, suspect, and said lawyer, a wiseacre PI and some other stock characters, and what you've got on your hands is one hot mess.

I don't read a lot of legal fiction, because in my opinion a lot of it sucks. I'm the reader who doesn't want to be able to guess whodunnit. I want a plot twist at the end that will rock my socks off my feet (or my flip flops, if it's summer). Not only did I figure out the murderer one-third of the way through, but I couldn't believe no one else guessed. The entire case against Stuart is so circumstantial that I laughed at it. The author had one flash of inspiration - to give Stuart a custom license plate reading GHOTI ("The 'gh' sound from laugh, the 'o' from women, the 'ti' from action. So ghoti, pronounced 'correctly,' spelled fish.") - and beats it to death the entire book. In lieu of any other originality, Lescroart just tosses standard plot devices like mistaken identity, big-dollar life insurance policies, shady business dealings and infidelity into a pot, boils it to mush, and serves it up on a plate with garnish. If it were possible to get indigestion from a book, I'd be reaching for a bottle of Mylanta right about now.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Title Five: Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

When I first noticed this book floating around my house, about a year and a half ago, I groaned inwardly that someone had paid money for some new-agey crap about a woman on a spiritual journey and blahdeblah. I finally gave in and read for two reasons: everyone I know kept raving about it and I was bored.

I started the book while hungover, and took this as a bad omen that I was about to subject myself to 108 chapters of woo-woo nonsense. I finished it with a feeling of admiration and introspection. Sure, I can't spend a year living in three countries (Italy, India and Indonesia) in a quest to "find myself," but the author treats the experience with an open, frank and funny tone as she takes the reader through innumberable plates of pasta, days spent in an Ashram, and the creation of a unique circle of friends in Bali.

Gilbert begins at the beginning, which I find refreshing, since so many of these types of books begin in media res and leave me with an initial sense of confusion. One night, while lying sobbing on the bathroom floor with her husband sleeping in the other room, the author finds herself mired in a pit of despair because she hates her marriage and her perfect life as a respected and published travel writer living in a perfect suburb of New York City in a perfect American Dream-style home. She knows just one thing - she wants out of her marriage and out of her life. It's not a suicide type "Oh God, I wish I could just drink a bleach cocktail and check out for good;" it's more of a "This is not my life and I need to figure out what it is supposed to be." The divorce is ugly, messy, and brutal, while her subsequent romance with a younger man meant to be a rebound develops into a co-dependent struggle as she finds herself disappearing into him. Gilbert decides to grab onto her life with both hands, no matter how much it hurts, and get away from all of it until she figures out who she is. I found this to be very touching because, as Americans, we tend to define ourselves by our careers and the people with whom we surround ourselves, by the movies we like and the takeout places we frequent and the sports teams we cheer on with almost manic intensity (I'm a married lawyer Sox fan who likes horror and sci-fi, with an affinity for Hunan cuisine and deep-dish pizza). But who are you? Who am I? In my opinion, this accounts for not only the sterotypical "midlife crisis" but also the recent emergence of what the pop psychologists have named the "quarterlife crisis." No one seems to be comfortable in their own skins. Therefore, I have a certain admiration for the few among us who actually put in the effort to become comfortable and banish the boogeymen who live under the bed.

Gilbert's first stop is Italy, where she stays for four months learning the language, sampling (or rather inhaling) the food, traveling to the notable and not-so-notable Italian cities and towns. With each passing day, she becomes less of a tourist and more of a resident, staying in a rented apartment, frequenting the local merchants, and cultivating a charming little circle of chums who share in her journey and encourage her. At the end of her sojourn, she sets off for India with a newfound sense of pride in herself as she realizes that she is beginning to become her own person, stepping out of the shadow in which she spent so many years. (Yeah, I just got a *little* self-helpy/new-ageish on you.)

Next up is India, where Gilbert throws herself into furthering her basic Yogic training. I have to admit that this section bored me a bit because I've never really seen the point of meditation and chanting in Sanskrit and the thought of sitting in a cross-legged position for hours on end kind of makes my brain fall asleep. However, Gilbert embraces the lifestyle, which includes scrubbing floors and working as the Ashram cruise director, of sorts, while continuing with her meditation and chanting and searching for God. She describes a few moments of succeeding in finding herself at one with the universe and admits to making out with a tree (I know how that sounds; but it's something I might do while completely drunk so I can't really judge), and if she believes it, then it must be truth for her. Who am I to say? She leaves the Ashram with equal parts hope, insight, and sadness, and heads for Bali to study with a famous healer and further her spiritual education.

I would have to admit that this phase of Gilbert's journey is the most interesting to me in the entire book, but it also took the most time for me to get through because there is far more action than in the previous two. Besides developing a friendship with the medicine man, she finds a close friend in a healer named Wayan, Wayan's children, and finds a small group of expats like herself, one of whom (*spoiler*) she takes as a lover - how Carrie Bradshaw of her - even though she swore herself to a vow of celibacy for the year. I don't want to give away too much of this last leg of Gilbert's journey, but I feel that I should point out that it is in Indonesia that she truly discovers the kind of woman, and person, that she truly is, and I believe that it is largely a result of her learning to trust both her heart and the people around her that gives her the freedom to do so.

When I really thought about it, I was actually a little jealous because I wish I could devote just a small amount of time in my life traveling and discovering who I really am. I joke with friends and family about what I want to be "when I grow up," but the truth of the matter is that I'm looking down the barrel of 30 and I'm not sure who or what I am now. I'm not getting all emo about it since I can figure it out right here at home, if I truly commit to it, but who wouldn't like to visit interesting and exotic places while discovering just who we truly are inside? (Okay, maybe a little emo.)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Title Four: Never Shower In A Thunderstorm (Surprising Facts and Misleading Myths About Our Health and the World We Live In) by Anahad O'Connor

Anahad O'Connor is a columnist for the New York Times, where he takes questions from readers in his "Really?" column on topics ranging from the veracity of old wives' tales to whether or not identical twins have identical fingerprints and older siblings are smarter. He has gathered over a hundred of these questions and gathered them into this funny, insightful and informative book giving you answers as to whether or not all that stuff your mother told you really is true or not.

O'Connor debunks such myths as the idea that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis and that you have to wait 45 minutes after a meal to go swimming, and makes the case that chicken soup is, in fact, good for a cold; you also can develop alopecia from wearing hats and tight ponytails. The book runs the gamut from topics such as sex, heredity, fitness, health, sleep, technology, and nature and is chock full of great questions:

"Will having sex before sports hinder your performance?"

"Does celery really have negative calories?"

"Does stepping on something rusty give you tetanus?"

"Can cold weather really give you a cold?"

And of course, one of the most ubiquitous questions of all:

"Do you risk electrocution if you shower during a thunderstorm?"

The answer to that one, incidentally, is yes. Not only does O'Connor describe the how (lightning that hits a building can travel through the plumbing, along metal pipes, and directly into a metal tap or faucet; additionally, tap water makes an excellent conductor because of impurities and minerals) but he also backs it up with expert confirmation from a former meterologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The fun of this book is that it has a great balance of science and banter, facts and jokes. O'Connor cites dozens of studies as he works his way through a mountain of questions but keeps a light-hearted tone. He also distills the information into neat bites so that it is easy to both understand the explanations and reasoning, and put the book down for days or weeks at a time and pick it up again when you're looking for something breezy to pass the time, but still want to feed your head. For a trivia savant like me, this is a fantastic addition to my (many) bookshelves.

Oh, and by the way - identical twins do NOT have identical fingerprints, so you don't need to Google that from your mobile.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Title Three: A Room With A View by E.M. Forster

I've had this book floating around for about eight years, and I never read it. I felt like I should read it, because it was listed as one of the top 100 English language novels of the 20th century or somesuch, but I never got around to it. So, I did the one thing that I knew would make me read it: I made it my cigarette book.

What the hell is a cigarette book, you ask? It's the book I read when I smoke cigarettes. Kind of how some people have bedtime books or bathroom books or what have you. Whenever I have a cigarette (at home, not while driving or at a bar) I need to multitask, so I read. At least the reading part won't give me lung cancer. (And please spare me the warnings; I read the box.)

Let's go back to the book. I wish I didn't have to. Please don't make me read this ever again. Eating A Room With A View would probably be more interesting and palatable than reading it was. Lucy Honeychurch goes on a tour of Italy with her spinster cousin Charlotte as chaperone. In their pensione they meet several drawing-room type characters, including a certain Mr Emerson and his son George. Lucy and Charlotte's rooms have no view, but the Emersons' rooms do, so the gentlemen propose a switch, since ladies like to look at things. There are several pages worth of British babble and blather, mostly on the part of Charlotte, about the impropriety of accepting rooms from gentlemen and blahblahblahwhatevercakes. Over the next few days, Lucy and Charlotte's sightseeing path crosses with other pensioners, including Mr Beebe, Lucy's pastor back home in England; Miss Lavish, a tacky old lady writing a novel; someone named Mr Eager, who seems pointless to me; the Misses Alan, a pair of spinster sisters; and the Emersons, of course.

There are a murder by a fountain, postcards, a carriage ride, the River Arno, violets in the countryside, and a kiss. George kisses Lucy when he is overcome by her beauty against a field of violets. They are seen by Charlotte, the dried-up old prune, who begs Lucy to tell no one (since Charlotte, as chaperone, would be blamed for the loss of Lucy's virtue and OH MY GOD, we get it). Lucy decides that she cannot stay in Florence and goes to Rome, where a Mrs. Vyse and her son Cecil are visiting.

The novel brings us back to the pastoral Eden of British suburbia, centered on Lucy's home, Windy Corner, where she lives with her widowed mother and 19-year-old brother Freddy. Tennis, tea, piano-playing, gossip, gardening, and visiting all take place. It's all veddy, veddy English. Lucy has managed to get herself engaged to Cecil; no one likes Cecil, including Lucy (though she doesn't know it yet), because he's a pretentious bore (and a boor), but it's a good match, so everyone is congenial. When they go visiting, Cecil is rude; country life is too quaint and boring for him. He proceeds to mold Lucy into his version of what a woman should be, and it looks as though they will be married in January and I will be released from this waste of a tree, but some deus ex machina brings tenants to a vacant house in town - not the "Miss Alans" [sic] as was originally intended, but the Emersons! Duh-dun!

Moving along. Cecil is condescending and obnoxious, Pruny Charlotte comes to visit and gets in everyone's way, like that annoying relative who comes for holiday dinners and apologizes all over the place for being a bother while secretly hiding dinner rolls in her purse, and George comes over to play tennis with Freddy. Cecil reads a book aloud, which turns out to be the story of Lucy and George's Italian indescretions, written and published by Miss Lavish under a pseudonym. Lucy realizes that Pruny Charlotte told Miss Lavish everything, George kisses Lucy again and declares his love by a hedge, Lucy realizes that she doesn't love Cecil because he wants her to be someone she isn't and breaks off the engagement. Everyone is delighted by the news, including Mr Beebe, because no one likes Cecil. Lucy decides to travel to Greece with the Alan sisters to get away from Windy Corner and George, but a chance encounter with Mr Emerson in the rectory library (seriously) reveals that the Emersons are moving to London because George has "gone under" with his unrequited love for Lucy and cannot stand to be reminded of her when she swans off with Cecil. By the by, nobody outside of the family knows yet that the engagement is off, for some stiff-upper-lip reason. Lucy figures out that she loves George and that Pruny Charlotte engineered the whole thing out of misplaced guilt, or something like that. The book ends with Lucy and George married, in Italy, with none of Lucy's family or friends speaking to her because they disapprove of the match, in British fashion, but Lucy and George don't care because they are IN LOVE, and that is all that matters. The whole point is that Lucy only ever pictured Cecil in a drawing room with no windows, but George gives her the view. I need some Tylenol because the anvils have given me a killer headache.

I want you to know that I love all things British. I love British books, and television dramas, and chat shows. I love saying "chips" instead of "fries" and I have always wanted to visit the UK. England, Wales, Scotland, the whole of it. I want to walk on moors and eat teacakes and see Westminster Abbey and ride in a black cab. However, I do not ever want to have to read this "pointless, repetitious, and exceedingly dull" (to quote David Tennant in a Children in Need sketch) piece of fiction again.

It's time to find a new cigarette book.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Title Two: Please Stop Laughing at Me... by Jodee Blanco

When you were growing up, where did you fit into the social hierarchy? Were you one of the cool kids, the nerds, the jocks, the stoners? Were you a misfit, either by choice or by fate? Did the thought of interacting with your peers fill you with dread and self-loathing? I remember where I existed; do you?

Jodee Blanco was a misfit, a freak, and an outcast. Please Stop Laughing at Me... is her account of the pain, longing, desperation and humiliation that she endured for the greater part of her school years, begininning around the fifth grade and extending until her last day of high school. Part of Jodee's problem was her upbringing - the only child of two intelligent and well-meaning parents, Jodee was raised to think and act as a sort of miniature adult and taught to act and react in the way that you or I, adults ourselves, would. Jodee was a popular girl until she befriended a mentally challenged student in her Catholic grade school; once word got out that she was hanging out with a "retard," she herself became labeled a freak. At first Jodee attempted to distance herself from her new friend, but internal guilt and external parental pressure led her back into the friendship and down the road she would travel, painfully, for the rest of her school life.

Things became so bad for Jodee that she had to switch schools, more than once, and endure hideous treatment - after a particular disastrous party incident, Jodee found herself relegated to an outcast status so brutal the the class loser refused to talk to her. Her shoes were tossed in unflushed toilets; her clothes were stolen from her locker and destroyed; she was beaten after school. Jodee's parents were convinced that the problem was hers and forced her into psychiatric treatment while teachers told her that she needed to work the problems out for herself.

As Jodee passed into high school, her life remained a living hell. A genetic deformity made her an even greater target for the cruelest of predators: the popular girls. Don't think for a moment that they were tossing out generic "freak" and "loser" comments; Jodee's classmates would threaten to kill her and refused to even allow her in the cafeteria at lunch. One day they pushed her into traffic when she got off the school bus. The threats, taunts, and physical and mental abuse continued until Jodee's last day of senior year, when she took a leap of faith and asked a classmate and former friend to sign her yearbook. Smiling, he scribbled with a black marker and handed it back for her to read: "YOU'LL HAVE TO FUCK YOURSELF, WE HATE YOU, BITCH."

It's interesting how easy it is to forget what it was like to be young and so unsure of yourself; Blanco has the ability to suck you right back into a time in our lives that most of us would rather forget. Growing up, I cared a lot about what people thought about me. Self-esteem wasn't something I had in spades. It's easy to look back, as a fulfilled, functional adult, and think "It turns out okay." It's easy for two reasons: one, it's true, for the most part; two, we have that sort of misty haze separating our adult selves from our adolescent selves - that cushion that time gives us. Blanco kicks that cushion out from under us and tears away the haze and forces us to look and to remember. Please Stop Laughing at Me... is brave, raw, and 100% worth reading.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Title One: The Year of Fog by Michelle Redmond

For my first foray into the Challenge, I chose The Year of Fog, a novel that looked intriguing to me when I saw it at Target. The basic premise is repeated in the voice of the narrator throughout the book as she returns, over and over, to the moment in which the year began: Abby, a freelance photographer, walks on Ocean Beach in San Francisco with her fiance's six year old daughter, Emma, on a cold and foggy July morning. Abby's attention is diverted for a moment when she stops to photograph a dead seal pup and glance at the highway; when she looks back, Emma is simply gone.

What follows is Abby's account of her search for Emma; woven in with mathematical ratios regarding the area of a circle, references to articles and books written on the psychology of memory, and photographic jargon are the threads of Abby's relationship with her fiance, Jake, showing how that relationship changes in the weeks and months following Emma's disappearance. Jumbled in haphazardly are memories of Abby's first lover, a much older man named Ramon; her encounters with a client and a fellow parent at a support group (both of whom she almost sleeps with); and entirely too much San Francisco tourism hype. I appreciated, at first, Abby's account of the various neighborhoods and landmarks that she visits in her hunt for Emma, putting up flyers and handing out leaflets. However, after a while, I don't need to be told that she's in the Haight again, or revisiting Golden Gate Park at night, or standing somewhere while the lights of Pac Bell Park shine in the distance. I get it. The book takes place in San Francisco. I don't need to be smacked in the head with that fact every other page. Nor do I need a Zagat's guide to the San Franciscan restaurant scene; the name dropping becomes anvillicious after a point.

Some chapters are only a page and a half long, and seem jammed into place and choppy. They mostly involve snippets of psychology with regards to memory, and while that premise is interesting, Redmond tends to get a bit too clinical in discussing the hippocampus and the amygdala. (You probably have no clue what those are, and that's okay, because you're not a brain surgeon.) There is also a recurrent subplot in which Abby's mother finds revealing photographs of Abby, taken by Ramon, while Abby is away at college; Abby's parents believe that she is a sex addict and ship her off to a pseudo-camp/rehab in an attempt to "cure" her. This really has nothing to do with the story and I found myself impatiently skipping over the all-too-frequent references to these events.

The heart of the story is Abby's search for Emma, which she refuses to give up. Caught in a tricky place as Emma's almost-stepmother, Abby cannot let go even when she feels that she has no right to hold on. Jake blames her for Emma's disappearance and Abby cannot forgive herself; for this reason she continues to push on, searching for any clue, retracing her steps and visiting a hypnotist in an effort to find what she missed. A distinctive surfboard becomes Abby's "Rosebud" and she follows a hunch thousands of miles in her last attempt to find Emma and bring her home.

One thing is obvious from the title: at the end of a year, the search for Emma will end, whether she is found, dead or alive, or Abby gives up. Throughout that year Abby comes to realize that she loves Emma more than she loves Jake, and while she can live without the latter, she exists in a shadow world without the former. Overall, the premise is excellent and the climax is both satisfying and bittersweet. The book itself could benefit from more judicious editing and less distraction, but it was an enjoyable read.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Temporary Lockout

I realize I've been notoriously absent since I joined the Challenge, but I have very good reason - this week I started a new job and am in the final hours until a wedding in which I am way too heavily involved for being a mere bridesmaid. I am going to attack this mofo with a vengeance after October 12th. Prisco, I'm coming for you!

Saturday, October 4, 2008


So, I'm open to suggestions for my reading list. I've a few ideas for my first few reads, but please feel free to toss some ideas my way.

Hello, fellow book geeks!

At the encouragement of my beloved Zombie Vanquishing Queen, Ms. AlabamaPink, I am throwing my hat into the Pajiba Cannonball Read ring. My mission, as I have chosen to accept it, is to read and review 100 books in 1 year. My interests are diverse: fiction, memoir, nonfiction; sci-fi, mystery, historical fiction, biography, autobiography, Brit lit, etc. The key rule to the challenge is that each book has to be at least 200 pages; this means that I can't include one of my top 10 books, The Little Prince, so instead I'm just going to tell you that you need to read it.

I haven't decided on my first read yet. I figure I have the weekend to mull it over.