Monday, October 26, 2009

Top Ten

So, my amazing friend Ms. Mix and Bitch had told me to rank my reads, but there is no way in hell that I can rank the 100+ books that I read in the last year (I'm counting my Pajiba reviews in that total, because I read that shit).  However, I will give you my ten favorite books from Year One of the Cannonball Read.  If you haven't checked them out yet, I invite you to - hey, why not add them to your list for Year Two?  So, in order from ten to one, here goes:

10.  Anybody Out There? by Marian Keyes

9.  Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell

8.  My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

7.  Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult

6.   Paradise by A. L. Kennedy - This one didn't get reviewed, due to time restraints, but it knocked my socks off.

5.  The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

4.  Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

3.  The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

2.  Band Geek by Dustin Rowles

1.  Still Alice by Lisa Genova

*Honorable Mention - Columbine by Dave Cullen

(Actually, Columbine deserves to be #3 or 4, but I kept my Pajiba reviews separate, so it gets its own place.)

There you have it.  You can check out ten of the eleven books listed; Band Geek is not yet published but I hope like hell that it is one day soon, because it's effing amazing. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's Here!

Yes, I'm talking about Cannonball Read II: In My Pants (also known as Cannonball Read II: Electric Bookaloo or Mother May I Read With Danger? II).  Check out the post at Pajiba and join in - don't be shy!  Even if you're not a regular Pajiban *looks at Mel with purposeful eyes* you can play along!  We have a Facebook group and everything! 

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Year Two, Y'all

So, in the next few days, we'll be announcing the kickoff of Cannonball Read 2.0 over on Pajiba.  My main goal is to get a LOT more committed participants involved.  We want you to read!  And have your reviews posted on the site! And become more literate and enlightened bitches and hos!

We're also doing this for Amanda.  (Yes, I totally played that card.)

Stay tuned, kiddos.  And start eyeing up that TBR pile you have hidden under the bed, in a cupboard, behind the terlet, wherever. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


Ok, friends, followers, and otherwise, I didn't make it to my target goal of 100 reviews.  It was a lot easier when I was unemployed, but now that I've been among the workers of the world for nearly seven months, I've slacked.  Add in the reviews I've done for Pajiba that I didn't count on this here corner of the interwebs, and I managed to come a little closer to that goal. 

With no further ado, here is the roundup of the books that didn't make it to the review stage; I'm going to do my best to put them in chronological order, but they're books I read mostly in between:

Sixty Eight - Girls Dinner Club by Jessie Elliot

Sixty Nine - Stiff by Mary Roach

Seventy - Picture Perfect by Jodi Picoult

Seventy One - Rhett Butler's People by Donald McCaig

Seventy Two - The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Seventy Three - The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Seventy Four - This Can't Be Love by Kasey Michaels

Seventy Five - Lady Killer by Lisa Scottoline

Seventy Six - A Royal Duty by Paul Burrell

Seventy Seven - Regeneration by Pat Barker

Seventy Eight - High Noon by Nora Roberts

Seventy Nine - Blue Dahlia by Nora Roberts

Eighty - Black Rose by Nora Roberts

Eighty One - Red Lily by Nora Roberts

Eighty Two - The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Eighty Three - Key of Knowledge by Nora Roberts

Eighty Four - Key of Valor by Nora Roberts

Eighty Five - The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Eighty Six - Conspiracy in Death by J.D. Robb

Eighty Seven - Lucky by Alice Sebold

Eighty Eight - Daring to Dream by Nora Roberts

Eighty Nine - Holding the Dream by Nora Roberts

Ninety - Finding the Dream by Nora Roberts

Ninety One - Flowers on Main by Sherryl Woods

Ninety Two - Dispatches From The Edge by Anderson Cooper

Ninety Three - The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

Ninety Four - The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

Ninety Five - Harvesting the Heart by Jodi Picoult

Ninety Six - Paradise by A.L. Kennedy

Ninety Seven - A Mother and Two Daughters by Gail Godwin

So there you have it.  Three books short.  I couldn't finish Anna Karenina or if on a winter's night a traveler.

I'll still be writing reviews for Pajiba, and I'm running the next incarnation of the Cannonball Read.  I just won't be participating, because I need to corral our next group of Cannonballers.  Hope to see your lazy asses there; we're doing this in honor of Pink.

I only hope she's proud of me. 

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Title Sixty Seven: Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

Yes, I'm cheating again. Shut it, fools. It was a rough week, and anyway Rusty already reviewed this.

"The year is 1954. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his new partner, Chuck Aule, have come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, to investigate the disappearance of a patient. Multiple murderess Rachel Solando is loose somewhere on this remote and barren island, despite having been kept in a locked cell under constant surveillance. As a killer hurricane bears relentlessly down on them, a strange case takes on even darker, more sinister shades — with hints of radical experimentation, horrifying surgeries, and lethal countermoves made in the cause of a covert shadow war. No one is going to escape Shutter Island unscathed, because nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems. But then neither is Teddy Daniels." - Barnes and Noble
My only previous experience with Lehane was Mystic River a few years ago, and I dug that book, so I figured this would be worth the read. Was it? Yes it was. I was completely immersed in the story almost from the beginning, the gears in my brain whirring as I tried to keep up with the pace and the twisting narrative laid out by Lehane. A couple of times, I found myself flipping back a page to re-read a passage or two, not because I was lost, exactly, but because I felt like there was a nuance that I might have been missing. Teddy Daniels is the good guy, and he has no idea who else is on his side. It could be that everyone is out to get him. Ghosts from his past won't leave him alone. He's a man on a mission. Then, just when everything seems to be resolving itself, Lehane comes up behind you with a two-by-four and nails you in the back of the skull. Everything that came before was smoke and mirrors, and holy shit, were you fooled.

I loved it. I read it in record time because I couldn't wait to get to the end, and when it was finished, I was satisfied. The conclusion isn't pat, but it's tidy, like a perfectly square box with a really rad gift inside.

Title Sixty Six: Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Ok, I'm totally going to cheat for a couple of posts, okay? From the author's very own Official Lullaby Site:

"Carl Streator is a solitary widower and a forty-ish newspaper reporter who is assigned to do a series of articles on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In the course of this investigation, he discovers an ominous thread: the presence on the scene of these deaths of the anthology Poems and Rhymes Around the World, all opened to the page where there appears an African chant or "culling song." This song turns out to be lethal when spoken or even thought in anyone's direction and once it lodges in Streator's brain, he finds himself becoming an involuntary serial killer. So he teams up with a real estate broker, one Helen Hoover Boyle, who specializes in selling haunted (or "distressed") houses (wonderfully high turnover) and who lost a child to the culling song years before, for a cross-country odyssey. Their goal is to remove all copies of the book from libraries, lest this deadly verbal virus spread and wipe out human life. Accompanying them on this road trip are Helen's assistant, Mona Sabbat, an exquisitely earnest Wiccan, and her sardonic eco-terrorist boyfriend, Oyster, who is running a scam involving fake liability claims and business blackmail. Welcome to the new nuclear family. "

This was my first Palahniuk. (No, you cannot revoke my Pajiba card for that. It's in the rules that I've just made up.) I didn't really know what to expect, so I wasn't really surprised when I was completely blown away. I mean, damn, this dude can write. And somehow make you totally uncomfortable while keeping you so intrigued that you can't put the damn thing down. There were passages that made me actually squirm in my seat but I had to know what happened. None of the characters are likeable. In fact, they're all pretty much creepy and I felt like I needed a shower after I finished. But it was good. It wasn't so much a novel as a living thing, breathing words and images. I won't ever read it again, because it's too dark for me, but it is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Title Sixty Five: Star Bright by Catherine Anderson

No. I must have been high when I decided to read this. I mentioned it to a friend and he replied, "I would rather poke my own eyes out than read that." I may take it out back, put it on the grill, and set it on fire.

Rainie fakes her own death while on a cruise with her husband because he's going to kill her. She ends up working as a bookkeeper for a rancher dude in Crystal Falls, Oregon. Of course he's hot, and of course he sees her as a delicate flower that he wants to pick. They fall in love and all. His entire extended family foists themselves and their "aw shucks"-iness upon her, and she decides she'll marry him, but she has to divorce the psycho, who apparently killed his two previous wives to get their money, like he was going to do to Rainie. She gets her divorce, the FBI tries to use her as bait to get the husband, it doesn't work. One night, in a scene stolen right out of the movie Sleeping with the Enemy (which is discussed earlier in the book) the husband shows up in the backseat of Rainie's car and forces her to drive to her apartment - she won't live with Parker, the rancher, because he's Catholic and his family wouldn't approve and he's fucking THIRTY-FIVE YEARS OLD - and tries to kill her with a mix of Ambien and wine, and making it look like she offed herself. (Seriously? I can take a giant Vicodin for my broken spine and then go out drinking with Pajibans all night. This lightweight has a glass of wine and three Ambien and almost dies. Pussy.)

Whatever. Parker figures out that she was giving him clues on the phone, via talking about her HALLOWEEN COSTUME, and hoofs it over. Rainie uses the last of her strength to smash the wineglass into PeterExHusband's face. The paramedics come and get her to the hospital and pump her stomach. A couple months later Parker and Rainie get married.

I need Brillo for my brain.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Title Sixty Four: Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married

Hello, dahlings. It is I, Marian Keyes. If you haven't suspected before now, I have actually kidnapped your adorable little Nicole and locked her in a closet so that I could take over her blog and promote my books. Here's another one!

On a lark, my heroine, Lucy Sullivan, goes with three coworkers to visit a psychic one evening after work. The fortune teller's prediction for Lucy is that she'll be married within a year. Lucy brushes this off with a "Bah!" That is, until her coworkers' predictions start coming true, and she meets the lovable, unemployed Gus, an Irish musician who charms his way into her pants and her pockets. Perhaps Gus is undependable and fond of the drink, but he's an artiste, moppets. He is a free spirit. Meanwhile, Lucy's best friend Daniel begins dating her roommate Karen, but this doesn't bother Lucy in the least because she simply doesn't find Daniel attractive.

You may be able to guess where the story goes. (I know, but dearies, I wrote it.) Gus turns out to be a worthless cad, Lucy realizes that her father is an alcoholic and that she's been beastly to her mother for years without understanding what the latter goes through, and Daniel is a dream.

Go buy it.

Note from the editor

It doesn't look like I'm going to make it to 100 reviews, but I damn well will make it to 100 books. I'm pretty close. Anyway, for the three of you who read this on a semi-regular basis, I'm going to keep going. Hope you dig it.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Title Sixty Three: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery by Norman Mailer

So, the good news is that I finally found a cure for my chronic insomnia. For serious, every time I read this I fell asleep. I'm blaming Mailer for The Great Nap Debacle of Last Sunday, wherein I took not just one but two lengthy naps, and was awake till the wee hours, when it occurred to me to pick up the book again. Bingo. Out like a light. This shit is better than Xanax.

So anyway. I was feeling guilty about all the trash I've been stuffing into my brain lately, so I wanted to redeem myself. This Guy Formerly Known as My Stepfather had this for years, and was kind enough to leave it when he vacated the premises. I spotted it and said, "Nicole, grab that. You need to make penance for all that Nora Roberts noise you've been reading." In the future, the next time I tell myself to do something, could one of you hit me in the head? 'Kthanksbye.

This book is exhaustive. I mean, really and truly. I read all 791 pages, because I do not like to give up on books, but my stars, I was more confused at the end than at the beginning. Like, trying to solve a physics problem confused. I wasn't even sure where I was. (Extensive research led me to the conclusion that I was in my bedroom.) Mailer interviewed family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues of Lee Harvey Oswald; he pored over and frequently references the Warren Commission testimony; he took excerpts of other books written about LHO; he incorporated letters and other writings, both to and by Oswald. Oswald's time in Russia, where he married Marina and had his first child, takes up nearly the first third of the book. His military history with the Marines is dissected. His job history is investigated. KGB and FBI records are made public. Mailer leaves no stone unturned in his quest to find the man who killed JFK (I don't even want to go into conspiracy theories). He not only delves into Oswald's past, but that of his wife, her family, and his mother. He goes back decades and decades to the beginning of the 20th century. He outlines the differences between various intelligency agencies and the perceptions of Oswald gleaned by said agencies.

The problem is, Oswald was a puzzle in life, and remains a series of contradictions in death. He was a failure who thought that he was something special; he renounced his US citizenship in Moscow (but not formally) only to return to the States a few years later, his experiment with communism a wash; he may or may not have been gay; he was a gregarious recluse. There's just too much information, and there is never a satisfactory answer to the question "Who was this man?" Again, this was no fault of Mailer's. It was just a question that will never be answered. No one could get a handle on Oswald before Jack Ruby put a bullet in his belly, so how could anyone possibly do it when the man's secrets died with him?

I'm going to keep the book on hand as a weapon for the zombie invasion. They're coming. Just you wait.

Title Sixty Two: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I read this lovely book about six years ago, and I wanted to see if it still held up. I'm delighted to say that it does, but it's also so bittersweet that I think I'll wait another five or six before visiting it again.

One evening, during a birthday party for a Japanese businessman held in a poor Latin American country (in the hopes that his electronics company will build a plant in said poor country), the Vice Presidential mansion is taken by terrorists; their intended target, the President, is not in attendance, and so the group must quickly formulate a new plan. They decide to take everyone hostage, including the evening's entertainer, world-renowned opera singer Roxane Coss. The first hours following the terrorists' arrival are filled with fear, confusion, and desperation, which Patchett transfers masterfully to the page. As time passes, the Red Cross brings in a negotiator, and eventually all women are released, with the exception of Coss, who chooses to stay.

Dozens of hostages remain, and the days pass. What began as a horrifying ordeal transforms into something unique: a small community of people, from all over the world, coming together and cobbling a satisfying little existence from the circumstances. Neither the terrorists nor the government will budge, so the experience lasts for months. In the meantime, Mr. Hosokawa, the guest of honor, becomes the chess partner of one of the Generals; Carmen, one of the two female terrorists, falls in love with Gen, Hosokawa's translator and aide; Vice President Iglesias becomes close with one of the young boys in the terrorist party and begins to plan a life, afterwards, in which he can raise the boy as his son; Coss begins singing arias every day for the delight and amusement of everyone in the house. They live in a bubble, a sort of hazy limbo, where the outside world ceases to exist and all that matters is their little group. None of them think any longer about the "after," because why would they want to? Friendships are forged, relationships flourish, talents emerge, and emotional bonds form. They don't need anyone but each other.

Of course, something like this can never end well, and the climax is heartbreaking and sudden. Patchett has breathed such life into her characters that they become real people, and by the end the reader cares as much about them as they do for each other. No one wins at the end of Bel Canto, and you will close the book with a sense of melancholy and dissatisfaction, but like the arias that Roxane Coss sings, just because something is sad doesn't mean it's not beautiful.

Title Sixty One: The Pact by Jodi Picoult

Emily Gold and Christopher Harte were born, months apart, to parents who lived in adjacent houses and mothers who were best friends. Growing up, they were two halves of a whole, partners in crime, and as close as any two humans could possibly be. As they moved into the maze of their teenage years, it was only natural that Chris and Em take the next step and become a couple. After all, it's like they were made for each other, so what could be more natural or perfect?

That perfection shatters on an autumn evening when both sets of parents are called with horrifying news: they must come to the hospital immediately; there has been a shooting involving Chris and Emily. The Hartes and the Golds race to the emergency room, but it's too late for Em, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Christopher has a scalp laceration and stitches. In the ensuing hours, tragic details will emerge: Emily and Chris went to the local park, where Chris operated the carousel in the summer, to fulfill a suicide pact. The gun that killed Emily was Dr. James Harte's. Chris fainted after Em's shot and before he could follow through.

It's not that simple. When Chris is charged with Emily's murder, an already tragic situation becomes catastrophic. What really happened that night? Melanie Gold becomes so consumed by bitterness, blame and rage that she turns on everyone, alienating not only her best friend, Gus Harte, but also her own husband Michael. James Harte withdraws into himself and avoids his wife. Chris's younger sister, Kate, is all but forgotten (the Christmas morning scene is downright painful). In the midst of all of this, defense attorney Jordan McAfee is trying to build a case that will let Christopher off the hook while asking his client to just sit down and shut up; meanwhile, Christopher needs to face the truth of his relationship with Emily, and ask himself how much she really loved him. The answer is devastating.

Picoult uses a combination of legal and emotional plotlines to frame her most successful works, and I would argue that The Pact is in her top three, along with My Sister's Keeper and Handle with Care. While moving through the present day, focusing mostly on Chris but keeping a good handle on the supporting characters, Picoult intersperses the details of Chris and Em's years together, from the day Emily was born and Chris shared her hospital bassinet, up until the night that she died and left Chris behind. In the meantime, everyone tries to put together the pieces of what, exactly, happened. Too many variables don't add up - the trajectory of the bullet, Emily's demeanor, her future prospects as a very talented artist - to label her death a suicide; however, if Chris loves Em as much as he, and everyone else, claims, he could never have killed her, because he doesn't want to live without her. Slowly, secrets are rescued from their hidden corners and pockets, and the answers eventually come together in a moving scene that has Christopher taking the stand in his own defense. The outcome and the answers are completely unbelievable, but they fit the novel to perfection. There is no happy ending, and the truth hurts everyone, but it's fitting. Life isn't always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes it's a cold marble headstone and regret.

Title Sixty: The Last Cowgirl by Jana Richman

I actually read this book months ago, and then re-read it after that. I'll put it on the stack of books to be reviewed, and then I take it off again and set it aside. I don't know why, but I just feel like I won't be able to do the book justice when I write about it. Then I realized that I need to get my ass in gear on this Challenge, so I resolved to do it. I apologize in advance, because the book deserves more than I'm about to give it. I just...I don't know how. I'm not that good.

Dickie Sinfield (only her father calls her by her given name of Darlene) had a normal suburban girlhood in Utah with manicured lawns and playing on the sidewalk in front of the house until the day her father decided that the family was going to move to a ranch outside of town so that he could follow his own childhood dream of becoming a cowboy. With the exception of Dickie's brother Heber, the family is less than enthused - Dickie misses her neighborhood and friends, her older sister Annie is horrified by the entire thing and spends her time out of the house or locked in her room, and their mother just quietly resents it. Her father's dream is only viable thanks to the efforts of two neighbors and fellow ranchers who would become more family than friends - Bev Christensen and Merv Nelson. A few years later, a local army base and the secrets beneath it would devastate all three ranchers, and Dickie would bolt for Salt Lake City as soon as she hit 18, where she would become a journalist and cut ties with her cowgirl past.

Dickie's story begins with the death of her brother Heber, an accident hushed up by the military base where he works - the same military base that played a role in the destruction of cattle herds decades earlier. Dickie is forced to confront the past in order to come to terms with Heber's death, and the story switches gracefully from the present day to Dickie's recollections of her youth, all told from her point of view. The novel ebbs and flows, unfolding at just the right pace. The plot folds in ranching, government research, environmentalism, Mormonism, family drama, friendship, betrayal, and acceptance in a fascinating way. It's not exactly a tale of redemption; it's more a tale of peace, and coming to terms with your life.

It's just so real. I think that's always been one of the best compliments I can give a book, because I want a story that I can believe in and characters I can know. I'm telling you, there is so much I'm missing here: Dickie's tumultuous relationship with Stumpy, Merv's grandson; her strained relationship with her father; the faithful details of cattle raising and ranch life; the pain of loss; Dickie's spiteful best friend Holly; the residents of Ganoa county and their uneasy acceptance of the military presence that provides jobs yet always casts a shadow of potential disaster. I just don't know how to incorporate all of my thoughts. This book is layered and thought-provoking and insightful and emotional. It's the book that any aspiring writer wants to create. It's lovely. I probably haven't made a very convincing argument here, because I'm babbling, but The Last Cowgirl is a gem. I hope that Richman keeps writing, because she has a fan here.

Title Fifty Nine: Play Dirty by Sandra Brown

Ok, I'll admit that this book is pure trash from front to back.* It's totally aimed at bored housewives who love the Lifetime Movie Network. It's possible that it destroyed a few of my brain cells.

A former Dallas Cowboys quarterback just got out of prison - I'm not sure why he was in prison, but it had something to do with him throwing a game for the Mob or something, and gambling, and I don't know what else. Anyway, this cat, Griff Burkett, gets the offer of a lifetime when he gets out - the billionaire owner of SunSouth Airlines wants Griff to get Mrs. SunSouth pregnant. The old-fashioned way. Because Mr. SunSouth is in a wheelchair and can't get the job done. Griff will make a boatload of money if he agrees. So he agrees. Mrs. SunSouth is okay with it. They knock boots at several appointed times, and Mrs. SunSouth gets up the pole right as the two fall in love, which is sad because now that the rabbit's dead, they have no more reason to meet. Then Mr. SunSouth turns up murdered, Griff is the suspect, but Mrs. SunSouth loves him anyway and helps him run. They figure out who really did it, everyone is redeemed, it turns out Mr. SunSouth was a manipulative, crazy bastard so no real loss there, and everyone is happy.


*Disclaimer: I was high on perfectly legal, professionally administered drugs when I read this.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Title Fifty Eight: Being Committed by Anna Maxted

Yes, again with the British chick lit. You shut your mouth when you're talking to me.

Hannah Lovekin prides herself on her lack of emotion; she believes that it makes her a good detective, and serves her well enough in her private life. The first sign of trouble comes when her boyfriend, Jason, proposes to her on a hotel bathroom floor, and she turns him down. This leads him to turn around and propose to his neighbor Lucy, which then makes Hannah decide she wants him back, even though he's kind of a puss. "Encouraged" by her father Roger to reconcile with Jason, Hannah goes through a sort of test course proposed by Jason in order to facilitate a reunion - she needs to be more feminine (the novel is written in the first person, and the description of a Brazilian had me putting down the book so that I could wipe away tears of laughter), she needs to learn to cook, she has to attend therapy in order to be more emotionally open, and she needs to find some closure with her ex-husband, Jack. The last proves the most difficult, since Jack left Hannah five months after they got married, at age twenty, because he believed that she cheated on him. Hannah has to spin a complicated web when she realizes that she's still in love with Jack, but needs to break off her engagement to Jason - he asked again after the Brazilian and the spray tan and the haircut and the dinner she made - in a delicate manner and return him to Lucy.

Things start to fall apart. Lies begin to spread, and with them truths come out. Memories of her own mother's affair, twenty-five years earlier, start pushing their way into Hannah's brain. She begins to see the people around her for who they really are: her parents, her brother Oliver and his wife Gabrielle, Jack, and her best friend Martine. Hannah starts feeling and it freaks her right the fuck out, but there's nothing she can do about it, and she finally begins to grow up.

Being Committed, like Maxted's other books, is a fast, fun read with a great central theme and a well-developed cast of characters. As the story branches out, it never becomes unwieldy; it just seems to evolve naturally. Maxted mixes humor with levity and creates an overall enjoyable experience. I dig it, and I'll read it again. And again.

Title Fifty Seven: A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care by Jennifer Culkin

So, we all know by now that I'm a sucker for memoirs, medicine-related books, and combinations of the two. (Look, are you reading a hundred books in a year?) So I went to Barnes and Noble one day at lunch, as I tend to do when my friend Lo is craving one of their pizza pretzels, and was trolling for something cool and came upon A Final Arc of Sky. In all honesty, I checked out the flappy thinger that tells you what it's about (my job renders me brain dead, shut up) and put it back. Then I wandered away, wandered back, looked again, wandered away, wandered back, and grabbed it. It promised me tales of Culkin's career as a critical care/emergency flight nurse, and I wanted the blood and guts and syringes and O2 tanks and flying while trying to keep a dude who wrapped his car around a telephone pole going long enough to make it to the hospital. I'm that kind of girl.

Culkin half-delivered. I don't even know if that's a word or if I made it up, but if you had to read spreadsheets all day you wouldn't be coherent either. There are some great tales of accident victims, medical type actions, and the general bad-assery of the job - I mean, for serious, it takes some titanium balls to do everything in your power to keep someone alive while you're flying in a tin can through a storm in Washington state. And that's your job. Like it's my job to look at spreadsheets, it was Culkin's job to keep people alive in the air. During 24-hour shifts. No fancy machines, no team of doctors, no Code Blues. Just a couple of nurses, a pilot, and someone with one foot out life's door. Do you realize how cool that is?

Culkin frames the story in vignettes more than chapters, and it lends a sort of choppy feel to the narrative. I also became disappointed when the story veered off into her personal life and followed the illnesses and deaths of her parents (her dad was kind of a prick in his final months) and then her own struggle with MS. Don't get me wrong, I admire her for speaking up about her own illness, but I think I was so tired of reading about her father that I just couldn't muster up the energy to feel genuine emotion. There were also a couple of chapters about her love of bike riding, and I just didn't care about that. I skipped them. They were, at best, tangential and, at worst, completely unnecessary. Culkin rounds out the memoir with a powerful chapter on a fatal crash and the deaths of the colleagues involved, even though she had gone on disability by that point, and how it affected her. She realizes that it could have been any one of them, and recalls the deceased with affection and respect. Then it just kind of ends.

Honestly, I wish I hadn't spent my money on the book, because it really only comes out as mediocre and uneven on the whole. I did use a coupon, though.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Title Fifty Six: The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

It is so, so rare to find a memoir that can blend fact, experience, personal and political history, and a conversational tone and deliver something so pitch-perfect that you can't put it down. I managed to read Cooper's lovely account of her privileged girlhood in Liberia, followed by her escape to America as a refugee and successful career as a journalist, in about three and a half hours (roughly the time it took for me to fly to Portland and back). It was that engaging and gripping; touching without being manipulative, and informative without being pedantic.

Cooper begins with a short history of the country of Liberia itself - the only American attempt at colonization - and traces her own roots back to the founders of the country through both her mother and father. The author neatly encapsulates the background and peppers it with enough details and anecdotes to keep it from becoming dusty or dry. Fast forwarding nearly a hundred and fifty years, Cooper describes her childhood as a daughter of a wealthy and influential family; her father built a luxurious estate in a secluded suburb of the city of Monrovia, a home that the family called "Sugar Beach." Cooper's parents, who already had children of their own, brought a poor native girl named Eunice to live with the family in order to keep Helene and her sister Marlene company. Eunice was treated well and loved by the girls as a sister, but the Liberian caste system prevented her from truly belonging to the family. Cooper evokes vivid memories of parties, private school, clothes from America, vacations, fancy cars, and handsome boys as she describes a charmed girlhood. Then overnight, a coup destroyed the delicate balance of Liberian life and families such as the Coopers were marked for death. Helene watched her uncle, a government official, executed on television. In a matter of weeks Helene, Marlene, and their mother refugeed from Liberia and fled to America as the world they left behind crumbled and burned, giving way to a new world where women were raped and slaughtered and children were orphaned and forced into militias. Eunice had to be left behind, and Helene didn't see her again for decades.

After the coup and the escape, the Coopers built a new life in America, but Helene was never comfortable, and they moved around quite a bit. John Cooper eventually went back to Liberia and died there; Calista and Marlene Cooper also returned but came back to the U.S. after several years. Only Helene never cared to go back. Helene dedicated herself to her studies and became a reporter at UNC, then moved on to a journalism career that took her to the Wall Street Journal and later all over the world, but she locked away her feelings on Liberia and focused on her new life as an American, preferring to forget her past, until she found herself in Iraq in the beginning of the war and narrowly avoided dying in an attack. Helene Cooper picked herself up, dusting herself off, and decided that if she were going to die in a war, it should be Liberia. Her decision brought her face to face with the horrors she never wanted to see again, but it also brought her back to Eunice, and gave her a second chance that should probably never have happened.

A story like this should be trite. It should make you roll your eyes and sigh derisively. The beauty of The House at Sugar Beach is that, instead, it makes your heart ache and your eyes tear in the best of ways. (I fully admit to crying a little while reading the description of Helene's father's death, although I was surreptiously trying to knuckle the tears away lest the air hostess ask me if I was all right and embarrass me on a plane full of strangers.) It made me wonder why I didn't know more about Liberia or the atrocities committed there, and it made me respect someone who took the pieces of a shattered life and rebuilt them while she was still just a child, and then had the courage to risk that fragile existence by going back as an adult. Cooper keeps it real in the best sense of the word, being matter-of-fact without being cold, being honest without being callous, and being true without being exploitative. The mixture of emotion and fact is beautifully balanced, and makes for a bittersweet story with the happiest ending it could have had.

Title Fifty Five: Sushi for Beginners by Marian Keyes

I like Brit chick lit, we've established that. I dig the slang and the settings and the phrasing and the pace. I prefer Keyes' Walsh sisters stuff to her standalones, but the latter are serviceable enough. I feel like I've reviewed enough of her books here over the last several months that if I get all analytical it's just going to be boring, so to sum:

Lisa is a hotshot magazine editor based in London who is ruthless, bitchy, and almost guaranteed to snag a promotion and posting in NYC. To her shock, she's sent packing to the backwater of Dublin to launch an Irish women's magazine, Colleen. Lisa loathes everything about it but is determined to claw her way back to the top. She acquires a sexy new boss in Jack Devine and a doggedly loyal assistant in Ashling Kennedy. Keyes gives you interesting characters, and it's fun to watch them move through the process of launching a new magazine. Ashling is the most endearing, but Lisa becomes a sympathetic figure and is redeemed by the end of the book. Ashling gets betrayed by her best friend and her boyfriend, but lands on her feet. Jack smolders his way along and gets his own happy ending.

Really, I don't have much more to tell you. It's a fun book if you're into this kind of thing, and Keyes doesn't really hit wrong notes that often. Sushi for Beginners holds up nicely.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Slackergirl Stall

Ok, I know I suck, but I'm-a blame work, a wonky home PC, and health issues, because while I'm known for my laziness, this is ridiculous. I'll be back on point real soon, because I'm still reading like a mofo.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Title Fifty Four: The Gun Seller by Hugh Laurie

Guess what? House wrote a book! I had to buy it. Those sexy blue eyes were just gazing at me from the back cover, whispering, "Oh Nicole, I've been waiting for you. Take me home." So I did.

I didn't expect it to be a great work of literature, and it's not. But what The Gunseller is, is a fun, fast, twisty romp of a spy thriller. Thomas Lang, ex-Scots Guard and general layabout, was drifting along just fine until the day he was offered a large sum of money to kill a wealthy businessman. Lang, of course, doesn't want the job, thank you very much, but he gets sucked into a tangled scheme involving arms dealers, terrorists, the CIA, a groundbreaking new model of fighter helicopter, and a pretty girl before he can even open a fresh bottle of Scotch. Blackmailed on several fronts, Lang is forced to be a bad guy, which he manages to do pretty well, but not without several layers of guilt weighing on his conscience and making him determined to find a way to flip the script on the guys holding the reins.

Honestly, the novel is a blast. The conversational tone made me picture Laurie, sitting in a leather armchair with a drink at his elbow, just spinning out this yarn while we relaxed in front of a fire on a chilly day. Lang is a fantastic protagonist, just a sort of everyman with some specially-acquired military skills who would prefer to mind his own business but has just a little more under the surface than you would expect. The plot double-crosses and then twists back on itself, but it's never too complicated to follow, with just enough sex and violence thrown in. The dialogue is organic and snappy and the characters given the right bit of nuance to make them interesting without taking over.

Go ahead, try it. Those eyes are begging you.

Title Fifty Three: The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Y'all, I love this book. As in, I would like to have adorable little babies with it. It's just so gorgeous and full of life. Henry and Clare's love story is so beautiful, and so breathtakingly painful, that you just want to crawl into the pages and watch it unfold before your eyes. The truest testament to Niffenegger's skill as a writer is that she makes that possible. Henry DeTamble and Clare Abshire DeTamble are real people to me; they're old friends whom I love and can't bear to let go, and the end cracks my heart a little more each time I read it.

To sum: Henry is a time traveller. Not a TARDIS sort of time traveller; rather, he has some genetic malfunction wherein he disappears from the present and finds himself in various times and places. Nothing fantastical like 14th century France or present-day Mars, but it could be a parking garage in Chicago in winter, the Field Museum at night twenty years earlier, or the Meadow at the Abshire home during Clare's childhood. Henry can never tell how long he'll be gone or when he'll come back, and it's Clare's curse that she must wait for him, and that she can never follow.

Clare and Henry met when she was only six, and he materialized in her favorite play spot. Henry was already grown. Throughout her childhood, Clare is visited by various Henrys from the future, a future where the two have already married. As she grows older, Clare falls in love with this man, and there is never anyone else for her. One day, looking for information at the library where Henry works, twenty-year-old Clare sees him and the pieces of her life begin to click into place. Henry hasn't met her yet, but their fate is sealed. Within hours they are lovers, and within months they are married. As they settle into married life, Clare begins to see the magnitude of their situation, but it's what she signed on for. Despite the awful limbo in which she must exist, Clare loves Henry absolutely, and he loves her with the same ferocious one-mindedness. They can only belong to each other. I swear, the love just bleeds off the page, but it's not sappy or overly sentimental. It just is.

You've got these two people who want nothing more in the world than each other, but they know that they have to be careful and grab what they can while they can, because time is so fluid and they never know when it's going to run out. The narrative should be jerky, with its constant flashbacks and -forwards, but it's not; it's beautifully seamless and smoothly undulating. You can't help but drift along on the current. I even love the ending, which is so bittersweet, but again brings such a sense of reality to what should be an absurd premise. Nothing is perfect, nothing is forever, but when you have something beautiful, hold onto it with all you've got.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Title Fifty Two: Vision in White by Nora Roberts

Shut up.

Four friends run a wedding planning business in Connecticut. Sassy red-headed photog Mac has no use for commitment, but she's great with the brides. She has a lot of baggage from her childhood and her parents, who treat marriage like it's a hand of bridge. Her mother blackmails her emotionally and her father ignores her. She just wants, as my friend Lauren would say, "a hot guy to bone."

Enter Carter, brother of a bride. He had a crush on Mac in high school, and he surprises her when she falls for him. He's an English teacher, back at the old alma mater, and he's bookish, smart, careful, and thoughtful - all the things Mac doesn't want. But folks, this is mass market paperback romance, so what do you think happens?

Mac and Carter fall in love. Wildly, madly, passionately. The sex is earth-shattering. Angels weep. Mac is able to toss aside her baggage and leap into the arms of her man. He asks, she says yes. Fin.

I needed a break from Anna Karenina, okay?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Title Fifty One: Behaving Like Adults by Anna Maxted

Oh, British chick lit, how I love thee. Like candyfloss for my brain, you are. Maxted takes what could be a light, fluffy, and completely mindless story and gives it a heavy, serious layer underneath, and it works beautifully.

Holly Appleton believes in love. Even though she's just split up with her fiance, Nick, a grown man who makes a living by dressing as Mr. Elephant at children's parties and Febrezes his feet when he's too lazy to shower - which is most of the time - she is an eternal optimist and runs a hip little dating firm called Girl Meets Boy in London. In order to help Holly get over Nick (and give Nick some incentive to move out of their house), Holly's coworkers, sister Claudia and actor Nigel, convince her to go on a date with a prospective client. Little does Holly know that opening the door to Stuart Marshall, a successful lawyer with a ridiculous sense of self-worth and entitlement, will be more disastrous than she could have imagined; one night, after seeing Holly home from a party, Stuart rapes her on the kitchen floor. Nick walks in during the middle and promptly moves out. Holly spirals into a dark denial and depression and nearly runs her business and life into the ground while keeping her secret locked away.

Maxted has a gifted touch with the material. All of the characters, save Stuart, are likeable and real. She keeps the devastatingly serious subject of the rape in perspective at all times while letting the story unfold from Holly's perspective. It is never treated lightly, and the steps that Holly must take with the police and finally therapy are described frankly without being heavy-handed. The reader almost gets a sense of being in Holly's skin as she moves through her existence in the weeks and months following "that night," going through the denial, shame, fear, hope, and cautious return of optimism with her. The mood is tense in just the right places, with an unexpected turn for the better here and there as Holly realizes that she is surrounded by love and support.

There are times when she retreats, but she always moves forward again, buoyed by her friends and family. The plot is made more substantial and realistic by the supporting characters and their experiences with life: Nick, who discovers a family secret; Claudia, who is keeping a piece of herself separate; Holly's parents, who turn out to be more than she ever expected; Rachel, Holly's best friend who grew up in a posh English family but is delightfully filthy; and Nigel, who is so theatrical that it's nearly impossible to believe he's straight. The point is, life goes on, and Maxted makes that the central theme of the novel. Even when your world is ripped to shreds and you find yourself in a strange place where up is down and the sky is green, you have to keep going, because that's what life is about. It's about the good and the bad, and keeping each in perspective, and making the most of what you have. It's lovely.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Title Fifty: Black Hills by Nora Roberts

Black Hills is just what you expect from a Nora Roberts book. Falling under the category of "romantic suspense," you've got Lil and Cooper, childhood pals who become teen lovers before going their separate ways. Lil fulfills her dream of opening a wildlife refuge in the Black Hills of South Dakota, while Coop makes his own way first as a New York cop and then as a private investigator before returning to South Dakota to care for his aging grandparents and taking over the family farm and horse business. Lil is still angry with Cooper for leaving her behind all those years ago and refusing her love, and she doesn't buy his excuse that he had to become his own person before he could be anything to her. Lil, for her part, doesn't want to admit that if Cooper had stayed she would probably have given up her dreams of being a world-renowned big-cat expert. When a series of grisly crimes leads to a connection to a string of missing and murdered persons, Lil decides she'll let Cooper take care of her after all, at least in bed. The bad guy turns out to be a whack job pseudo-Indian with a grudge against Lil for "desecrating the land" or some shit, since he thinks she, as someone with Native American blood, should be building shrines to Crazy Horse instead of running a refuge. Eventually Lil and Cooper fall back in love, the bad dude gets caught after almost killing Lil, and everyone is happy. That's how these things go.

The good: a lot of solid and interesting detail and description of Lil's field, likeable characters and loveable animals, and a decent backstory for Cooper, who is the son of a wealthy NYC lawyer who cut off his son when the latter refused to follow in his footsteps.

The bad: it's predictable as hell, everything ends in love and marriage (my GOD, does everyone have to rush to the altar these days?), and I tend to prefer Roberts novels where the villain isn't revealed until the end, because I enjoy trying to figure out who it is and prefer a surprise ending.

I'll read it again, and I've already lent it to my mom, who is solely responsible for getting me hooked on Nora in the first place when I was a teen. Blame her for my mass-market tendencies.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Title Forty Nine: My Lobotomy by Howard Dully

What a sad, sad story. I've reconciled myself to the fact that memoirs are, by and large, sad. Most of them are a means for an author to purge himself of pain or atone for past sins, and that's all right. It's what keeps us reading, the thrill of living vicariously through someone else's abuse, addiction, illness, and sorrow while we're tucked up comfy and safe in our beds. For some reason, this book touched me more than the last few memoirs that I've read. I don't know if it's because Dully's anguish is rooted in childhood or because he is obviously just a simple man, a bus driver telling his story in order to stand as a voice for thousands like him without any affectation or sense of importance. The point is, it's a sad sad story but one very much worth reading.

Howard Dully's mother died when he was very young, and his father remarried a woman who was her opposite: where Dully's mother had lavished him with love and affection, his stepmother Lou treated him like a black sheep, punishing his severely for both real and imagined transgressions while his stepbrother and brother were exempt. Dully was also often physically punished, with great force, by his father. Howard was a mischevious boy, often in trouble in school and at home, but not malicious; were he a child today, he would probably be overmedicated on Ritalin for ADD when it seems that he was just a bright child (he used to disassemble and reassemble electronics when he was a toddler) with a vivid imagination and a dearth of intellectual challenges at school. His stepmother, however, couldn't stand Howard and tried various ways of removing him from her household; eventually she came upon the idea of having him lobotomized by the field's pioneer, Walter Freeman, who decided that Howard had been a schizophrenic from the age of four. Howard had no idea what was going to happen to him and the decision was made by his parents in a matter of days. After, Lou's campaign to get Howard out of her house was successful as he was bounced to foster families, relatives, and mental institutions. He was never allowed to return to the family home.

As Howard grew to adulthood, he moved from halfway houses and dead end jobs to homelessness, going from woman to woman, drinking heavily, marrying, divorcing, and fathering a child, but with no purpose. He was arrested time and again. It was only after years of such aimless existence that he realized he couldn't blame the lobotomy and decided to get his act together. He married a good woman, got clean, and got a steady job as a bus driver. Soon after he decided to research what had happened to him, Howard was contacted by two NPR producers who were putting together a segment on Freeman and the devastating effects that his cavalier lobotomies had had on his patients. After hearing Howard's story, the producers revamped the focus of the piece, choosing him as its center, and convinced him to interview patients, their families, medical professionals, and others, including his own father, who ultimately refuses to accept any responsibility or blame for what happened to his son. Eventually Howard became the voice for Freeman's patients as the narrator of the NPR piece "My Lobotomy," which was so well and widely received that the emails coming in after its initial airing crashed NPR's server. That program, in turn, led to the writing of this book.

Howard Dully uses an honest voice as he recounts and rediscovers his past. He is modest and candid, and the story is all the more powerful for it. At the end, you are glad that the adult Howard has picked up the pieces and rearranged them into a better life, but sad that the child ever had to endure such pain and absence of love. I'd like to give Howard Dully a hug.

Title Forty Eight: Our Lady of the Forest by David Guterson

Sweet cracker sandwich, this book is so depressing that it should come with a trial pack of Zoloft. The entire narrative takes on the tone of the damp, dark, mossy Oregonian forest in which it's set. It has a claustrophobic and chilly feel and frankly, has one of the most unsympathetic cast of characters ever. I'm not saying it's not good; it's certainly serviceable and has an interesting premise, but it gave me the feeling that if I ever had the misfortune of finding myself in North Fork, Oregon, surrounded by these people, I'd want to put the town in my rearview mirror as fast as I possibly could.

Ann Holmes is a teenage runaway who left home after being raped continually by her mother's boyfriend. She lives in a campsite and picks and sells wild mushrooms for money. One day during her picking, she is overcome by a vision of the Blessed Mother, who instructs her to return and to deliver certain messages to mankind. It's all familiar to a reader like me, who went to Catholic school for eighteen years and is well-versed in the stories of Fatima and Lourdes. At any rate, Ann is soon a celebrity on the Marian devotion circuit, and she's essentially taken advantage of by everyone: the campground neighbor who sees Ann as her moneymaking ticket to a winter in Mexico; the thousands of fanatics who throng to the woods and beg Ann for favors and intentions; the bumbling priest of the miserly local parish who tries, ineffectually, to seduce her. Woven throughout is the story of a pathetic community that has fallen victim to a sharp decline in the logging industry (the derogatory references to liberal treehuggers and the spotted owl abound), along with the tale of Tom Cross, a former logger whose life has disintegrated after his son was left a quadriplegic in a logging accident for which Tom blames himself - he was trying to teach his son how to be a man, not a pussy or a faggot. Tom and his fellow townspeople are essentially Northwestern rednecks: they hate women, Jews, gays, Indians, Asians, and pretty much anyone who isn't a white male quaffing draft beer at one of the local taverns. It's with Cross that Guterson gets sloppy; while I understand using one person to illustrate a human microcosm of the town, it becomes tiresome reading about Tom's preoccupation with sex and thoughts of revenge on everyone who has somehow wronged him.

Back to the larger picture. Ann continues to have visions and insists that a church is to be built on the site, but she's nothing but a pawn to the people around her, and the story concludes with a morose ending. All in all, a decent effort, but it would be vastly improved by enthusiastic pruning of the Cross story and a seventy percent reduction in the sexual themes, allusions and metaphors. (Reading about a guy eating a hamburger with much chewing and "labial noise" put me off my appetite for several hours; I also prefer books that don't reference the scent of a woman's nethers more times than I can count on one hand.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Title Forty Seven: Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

The latest installment in the Thursday Next series is really a gift to fans of the first four books; Fforde did a lovely job of tying up all loose ends in Thursday's story at the end of Something Rotten and could have gone the rest of his career without ever returning to the character, but for the fact that book fans can be just as rabid as any other kind and they wanted some more Thursday (I include myself among this number). First Among Sequels jumps ahead fourteen years from the end of Something Rotten, landing in 2002 and focusing on Thursday and Landen's life post-SpecOps - it's been disbanded - as they raise their family and try to get along with normalcy; Thursday runs a flooring-and-carpet business along with some other ex-SpecOps pals, such as Spike Stoker, Stig the Neanderthal, and Bowden Cable. It's all really a front for the fact that the gang is still involved in their old tricks, something that Thursday hides from Landen and the kids, as well as the fact that she is also still pulling double duty in the BookWorld at Jurisfiction as an agent. Meanwhile, Thurs and Landen are trying to figure out why Friday doesn't show any interest in the ChronoGuard (one of the few remaining SpecOps divisions) even though he's pretty much destined to be its shining star. There are also appearances by past characters like Joffy, Aornis Hades and the Minotaur, along with Thursday's counterparts in the BookWorld, the result of her having books written about her after her previous escapades. Even Goliath comes in again. All in all, it's really just fun for the fans with a chance to return to an old favorite character.

If any of the above made sense to you and maybe caused you to squee a bit, I suggest you pick it up. If you have no idea what the hell I'm talking about, move along.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Title Forty Six: The Stand by Stephen King

I've never read King before; I'm not much for horror, in either books or movies. Basically, I'm kind of a puss. However, I was browsing my sister's bookshelves one night and saw The Stand among the spines (one of her boyfriend's contributions to their little library) and I thought, Hey, why not? I wasn't sure if I would like it, but hot damn did I.

When an accident at a California military base lets loose a bioweapon, one soldier escapes and bolts home to retrieve his wife and child, completely unaware that he's carrying the most contagious and terrifying plague known to man. As the family drives east, they end up crashing into a gas station in Texas, infecting everyone in their path before they drop dead of what becomes known as the "superflu." It spreads across the country like wildfire, wiping out millions in a few short weeks. The victims die grisly deaths as the military attempts to control the situation and fails miserably. A tiny segment of the population, somehow immune, are left behind as the world around them essentially grinds to a halt. There's no electricity; roads are choked with cars filled with bodies rotting in the summer heat; dogs and horses die as well. Civilization as it exists in 1990 disappears as the survivors attempt to figure out what it all means. They become pawns in an epic struggle between good and evil, as they dream about two people: Mother Abigail, an ancient black woman who lives on a farm in Nebraska and becomes the central figure for the good guys, and Randall Flagg, a demon who sets up shop in Las Vegas and creates a community of amoral misfits and those who decide that their chances are better on his side. While Flagg, also called the Dark Man and the Walkin Dude, gets the power back on and starts assembling a collection of worker drones and nuclear weaponry, the motley crew of goodies make their way first to Nebraska to unite under Mother Abigail and then move on to set up the Free Zone in Boulder, Colorado, where God has directed Mother Abigail to take her people to prepare for the final showdown. Eventually, a small group of Free Zoners set out, under Mother Abigail's instructions, for Las Vegas and a confrontation with Flagg.

King uses this massive work to illustrate a grand sociopolitical question: what would it be like if everything just stopped and you were left behind? His characters are amazingly real and nuanced - Frannie Goldsmith, a pregnant college girl from Maine; Larry Underwood, a rock star from New York City who was running from a bad scene in L.A.; Stu Redman, a redneck from the small town in Texas where the original victim died; Nick Andros, a deaf-mute who goes from being a social outcast to a leader. At nearly 1200 pages, it's almost impossible for me to summarize this huge novel, but the narrative is so far-ranging and well-planned that it's almost as impossible to believe that one person could have created it. I never once grew bored, nor did my curiosity wane as I ventured deeper into the story. It's frightening because it could happen, and it made me wonder what kind of person I would be if I survived something so devastating. The good versus evil thing wasn't as important to me, but it provided a decent context and motivation for the plot and actions of the characters. I'm glad I read it. I don't think it's turned me into a King fan, because I'm still afraid of almost everything, but it was worth the while.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Title Forty Five: The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits

So imagine that I'm browsing in a bookstore, or maybe the book section at Target. I notice you checking out The Uses of Enchantment. I watch for a minute while you read the back, sense your hesitation, and then see you say to yourself, "Eh, seems interesting. I'll take it."

Now you see a slightly manic blonde hauling ass towards you making frantic waving motions. When did they start letting homeless women with well-maintained highlights hang out in Barnes and Noble? you think. At that moment I arrive in front of you, my ponytail slightly disheveled, panting a bit from my trek across the store. (I should really cut down on the cigs.) "Put it back!" I cry. You wonder why I'm so vehement. What could be so wrong with a book whose blurb promises a tale of Mary Veal, who disappeared from her posh New England prep school one day after field hockey practice and reappears a few weeks later with no visible injury or trauma save a case of amnesia. Was it true, or did she fake the whole thing? What repercussions will the event have on Mary's family, therapists, and Mary herself? Why wouldn't you want to check this out?

I'll tell you why. It's a hot fucking mess. Julavits is aiming for literary and instead turns out a disjointed, confusing, and subpar book that tries to blend three different "narratives" - "What Might Have Happened," a convoluted account of Mary's experience with a kidnapper/fellow fugitive/pervy old dude who supposedly suffers from amnesia himself; "Notes" from her first therapist, who goes on to write a book detailing what he considers Mary's entire fabrication and which ends up destroying his career when he's accused of improper patient conduct with Mary by a feminazi colleague; and "West Salem," the events that follow the funeral of Mary's mother fourteen years to the day from Mary's disappearance (Mary's mother, incidentally, refused to see her before she died, and spent most of her life obsessed with an ancestor accused of being a witch). Is that confusing enough you? Congratulations, now you know how I felt when I read the book. Beyond the fact that Julavits has three concepts that never come together, there is no real resolution. You never find out why Mary took off with the guy (if that's what actually happened). You never understand why Mary let the feminazi take over and trash her therapist. You certainly never get any sort of revelations or conclusions from grownup Mary. It's never even made clear who the dude in the car was. It ends abruptly; it doesn't even whimper to an end. The whole thing is like watching a fly buzz between a window and a screen until it drops dead, but somehow less entertaining.

Put the book down. Walk away. I promise not to stalk you through the store.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


I've got about five CB reviews to write, but when I get home from work the last thing I want to do is sit in front of the computer and form coherent sentences. I'll be rectifying that this week. (One of the books I finished last week was The Stand, and man do I have a bit to say about that. My first [and probably only] King book.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Title Forty Four: Love The One You're With by Emily Giffin

When it comes to Emily Giffin, I have very definite opinions. I adored Something Borrowed, enjoyed Something Blue, and loathed Baby Proof. My expectations towards Love The One You're With were mediocre, and they were just about met.

Ellen had a great life; she married Andy, the brother of her college roommate/best friend, she started a great photography career in New York, she was welcomed into the wealthy Atlanta family of her husband, and she was happy, happy, happy until the day she saw her ex Leo on a street corner. Instead of ignoring it, or brushing it off casually, she had to make a huge deal about it, sneaking meetings and calls and texts, hiding it from everyone except her older sister Suzanne, who still lived in their hometown of Pittsburgh. Ellen needed *closure* from Leo, the one who broke her heart and got away, the one who knew her inside and out and just ditched her one New Year's Day. Meanwhile, Andy asked Ellen if she would like to move to Atlanta so he could join his father's law firm and be closer to his family, including sister Margot, who is pregnant with her first child. Ellen voiced no doubts and away the two went, with Ellen realizing how stifled she felt in their new mansion, or social circle, or life. I have no sympathy for Ellen; she should have spoken up. Instead she sabotaged her marriage, reignited her relationship with Leo, and burned bridges with her best friend and husband in the process, only to realize that she made a colossal mistake on an ill-fated trip back to New York to work on an assignment with Leo, a writer. Luckily for Ellen, Andy realized how much he loved her, and how stifled she felt, and he took her back, although I frankly don't think she deserved it for being such a selfish cow. Andy wasn't innocent but Ellen, a grown woman, should have tried to deal with the situation constructively. Instead she nearly imploded everything and manages to keep hold in the nick of time. A compromise is reached and everyone gets a happily ever after.

Sweet Christ, what shit. With the exception of Something Borrowed, Giffin has a unique talent for creating completely unlikable characters and constructing situations that are so bland they make plain yogurt look delectable. In my opinion she's a one trick pony and I hope someone stops publishing her dreck.

Title Forty Three: Rachel's Holiday by Marian Keyes

Rachel Walsh, the middle sister of the Dublin Walsh clan, is living the glam life in New York City, rooming with her best friend Brigit and enjoying a passionate relationship with the sexy Luke Costello. Sure, she likes to party a little much, but isn't coke the NYC version of coffee? And Valium is no big deal - she just needs it to come down. As for the (high-dose and illegally prescribed) painkillers, well, cramps are the scourge of every woman's life, aren't they? Rachel doesn't get out of hand any more than her friends. When they get on her case, she just thinks they need to loosen up a bit. And if she can't hold onto a job, that's not her fault, because everyone knows bosses are pricks. And maybe she owes her friends a fair bit of money, but we all get in a pinch sometimes.

Until the morning Rachel wakes up in the hospital after the agony of having her stomach pumped. It seems she took a bit too much coke the night before and, desperate to come down and get some sleep so she could go to her shitty job the next day (she has been calling out sick a bit too much lately) she may have overdone it on the Valium. No one will listen when she protests that it wasn't a suicide attempt, and in short order she finds herself packed off to an Irish rehab facility called The Cloisters; Brigit is no longer speaking to her and Luke has ditched her. No matter; loads of celebs have been there and Rachel is almost looking forward to two months' stay in a posh facility, getting massage and seaweed wraps and eating fresh fruit and doing aromatherapy. Until she gets there, that is, and realizes that she's just a step above institutionalized.

What follows is an account, both wrenching and darkly funny, of Rachel's coming to terms with the fact that she is a serious addict. Horrified by the people around her, Rachel steadfastly believes that it's all a mistake, until one day she can't hide from the truth anymore and everything around her crumbles. Your heart breaks for her as she realizes that she's anesthetized herself from life and alienated everyone who ever cared about her, that her self-esteem is shit, and that her life is a wreck. She has to break to get stronger, and Keyes does such a great job with the material that it's poignant and true and slightly horrifying while still maintaining a slightly funny edge.

The ending isn't rosy, but it is quietly satisfying, and Rachel's Holiday is a solid installation in the lives of the Walsh sisters and in Keyes' body of work as a whole.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Title Forty Two: The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

I'm pretty sure I read this back when it came out and caused a stir, but I wasn't certain (probably not a good sign) so I thought, "Eh, why not?" Wow. Seriously? This book wasn't funny. It was just sad. I only had sympathy for one character, and he got royally screwed in the end.

Nanny is a grad student in child development at NYU who lives in a shoebox apartment and works as a nanny to afford said education and living quarters. She gets picked up in Central Park one day by Mrs. X, who wants her to watch darling Grayer a few days a week. Predictably, it turns into Nanny-as-indentured-servant as Mrs. X flits from salon appointment to charity function and Mr. X fucks a girl from the Chicago office. Nanny falls for Hot Rich Guy Who Goes To Harvard And Lives In The Xes' Building. Grayer, whom Nanny calls Grover, is largely ignored by everyone but her. She is the only shining light in his existence. (Wait, I just heard Handel's Messiah.) Of course, she gets too close to Grayer and Mrs. X fires her while Grayer wails in the background. The end.

It wasn't cute. It was about a bunch of self-centered New York assholes who essentially give birth to expensive accessories, whom they hand off to students and immigrants. Maybe someone should have advised McLaughlin and Kraus to stick with childcare.

Title Forty One: Rag and Bone (A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead) by Peter Manseau

This looked way more interesting when I picked it up, kids. I mean, I was raised Catholic, so I'm very familiar with the concept of relics (essentially a piece of a holy person, most often a saint; sometimes clothing will work too). I thought it might be cool to read about the experiences of a guy who spent years traveling around the world in search of certain relics - Saint Anthony's tongue; Saint Francis' toe; Jesus' foreskin; Muhammad's whisker; the Buddha's tooth. Manseau does a decent enough job of describing the relics' places in their respective faiths/belief systems, and gives some informative context, such as the juxtaposition of the world's religions in the Middle East and the genocide in Sri Lanka (site of the Temple of the Holy Tooth). The book itself isn't poorly written. It's just that the subject is as dry as the relics themselves, and it's kind of hard to get jazzed up about it. I salute Manseau for his thorough research and interesting travels, but beyond that, I've got nothing.

(The closest I've ever come to a relic was when I visited the Saint Katherine Drexel Shrine here in Bucks County and prayed at the altar where the saint is buried. I might want to see one sometime, though. Seems kind of interesting.)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Side Note

I'm going to try like hell to make it to 100 books (I've still got months, and summer is the second best season for reading) but I won't be counting any Pajiba reviews towards my total. For some reason, it would almost feel like doing one paper and handing it in for two separate classes. I'm weird like that. Anyway, if you're one of the four people who might read this on a semi-regularish basis and you like what you see, feel free to check out my reviews in the Books section at

Title Forty: The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

Laurel Hawthorne makes beautiful quilts, but she always puts in hidden pockets and secret compartments where she places something ugly - a bird's skull; a broken tooth. It's her way of acknowledging that everything beautiful has something dark inside, but she won't let it show. Laurel lives her life much the same way, tucking away her sordid family relatives in DeLop, Alabama and the ghost of her pervert uncle Marty, keeping those things separate from the picture-perfect life that she lives with her husband and daughter in a gated community in Victorianna, Florida. Everything is orderly and tidy until the hot summer night that another ghost comes to visit Laurel, the first she's seen in the thirteen years since she moved to Victorianna - her daughter Shelby's best friend Molly, who has drowned in the Hawthornes' pool. In order to find the truth about Molly's death, Laurel has to open the secret compartments and expose the ugliness to the light of day.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming was surprising; it was far better than I expected and I found myself engrossed in solving the mystery of Molly's death. Laurel brings her sister, Thalia, to Victorianna to help; Thalia is the polar opposite of Laurel, an actress who is married to a gay man, a woman who lives life messily and loudly and brashly. Thalia cannot understand how Laurel can exist in her tidy little world, but Thalia has the courage to root out the truth that Laurel lacks. The novel is peopled with interesting, realistic characters, such as Laurel's husband David, a placid computer programmer who loathes Thalia; simple Bet Clemmens, a teen cousin from DeLop who has come to visit the Hawthornes (Laurel's own little charity project); Stan Webelow, a neighborhood man whom Laurel suspects in Molly's death; and Laurel's parents, especially her mother, who came from the poverty and squalor of DeLop but has managed to insulate herself beneath a veneer of Southern respectability and charm. Jackson also shows the secret side of the upper-middle class suburbs, with its alcoholics, cheats, and liars, contrasting it with the outright crime, drug addiction, illiteracy and hopelessness of DeLop.

Jackson keeps the pace moving as she weaves the threads that Laurel will pick apart as the days following Molly's death pass. She also cleverly uncovers Laurel's past and deftly guides the reader through a sort of journey both forward and back, a plot device that can often feel contrived or heavy-handed when used by other authors but not here. Laurel is the center and she needs to look both behind her and ahead if she is going to find her way out of the pocket within which she has hidden herself. In trying to protect her family, Laurel has frozen them, and Molly's death is the catalyst for Laurel's realization that it's no way to live. She has tried so hard to not be Thalia that she's more a sketch than a painting. There is only one awkward scene, which Jackson resolves nicely enough, even though it was a bit out of place with the rest of the book. All in all, a definite recommendation if you're looking for something with some substance and flair.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Title Thirty Nine: Driving with Dead People by Monica Holloway

Hey, y'all. Did you miss me? I've been real busy.

Anyway, I need to tell you something. I think I have memoir ennui. I mean, we should have realized that this was going to happen, right? I feed on other people's stories like a leech. Eventually I'd meet one that I'd close and say, "Huh. I should feel more than I do, but I don't."

That book is Driving with Dead People. Please don't misunderstand me; I felt for Monica. She got a raw deal. Her parents were both shitty. Her father splurged his goodwill on being a good guy in public, at his hardware store and Elks barbecues, while he made his kids' lives a living hell, treating them with cruelty and violence and going out of his way to humiliate them. Her mother was a selfish bitch who pretty much abandoned her kids when she figured out she didn't want to play house anymore and decided to go back to school, where she got her own apartment and hooked up with a married guy that she would later take on as a second husband. In the meantime, Monica, her sisters Becky and Jo Ann, and her brother Jamie were kind of left to fend for themselves, and they all turned out about as fucked up as you could imagine they would. Not much is told of Becky's story, and Holloway hints strongly at a sort of estrangement that grew from childhood between the girls, so I got the impression that she's left out mostly because Becky doesn't want to be a part of Monica's life and "lawsuit" can be a sweet word when family is on the outs. (Of course, that's just my take on it. Maybe Monica wanted to give Becky some modicum of privacy.)

Monica does a decent job of essentially raising herself, and forges a strong friendship with Julie Kilner, whose father owns the local funeral home (and by whose family and family business Monica is fascinated; hence the title). The girls create a bond and Monica is amazed by a family where knocking over your glass at the dinner table won't get you knocked off your chair. Monica's father has an obsession with gruesome accidents and death, filming them with the family movie camera, and Monica often wishes she were dead. She's not exactly suicidal; she just sees death as a sort of peaceful place to be, and this feeds her interest in the Kilner mortuary. In their teens, Monica and Julie pick up extra money by fetching bodies from the airport in the hearse, but the book is about so much more than that. It's about how a kid who has the deck stacked against her turns out all right, and how, just when she thinks she's figured out her life - Holloway put herself through college and became an actress, even though she's spent a lot of her time scrabbling from day to day and engaging in disastrous love affairs - one thing comes along and knocks her sideways. You're going to get spoiled, so don't read further if you want to wait and see for yourself.

One Christmas, Jo Ann tells Monica that she's not going home for the annual family celebration. Apparently, now that the kids are all grown up and no longer in need of mothering, Mom likes to pretend happy family at the holidays. Monica stops off to see Jo Ann on her way home, and Jo Ann reveals that she remembers being molested by her father throughout her childhood. It's both shocking and yet not; I had a simultaneous feeling of "Seriously? Something else happened to these kids, on top of the rest?" and "Well, in a family that messed up, I guess it makes sense." The rest of the book deals with Monica trying to come to terms and remember if she, too, was a victim of sexual abuse. Their mother patently refuses to believe that such a thing happened, but Monica recalls her mother's insistence that the girls sleep in nightgowns without underwear to "air themselves out" and slathering their privates with Vaseline at night. Also, all three girls slept in the same room for years, so Monica must have borne witness, mustn't she? Could she really not have known this was going on? Was her mother complicit in the most vile of crimes? Becky refuses to discuss it; Monica and her mother stop speaking; Jamie is too far gone down a road of self-loathing and alcohol abuse to be present; Jo Ann becomes suicidal and is hospitalized. Monica cuts off the oddly congenial relationship she's fostered with her father while trying to figure out her own truth. Then, one day, like an ice pick to the chest, her father inadvertently confesses his guilt: Monica phones him after Jo Ann's suicide attempt and tells him that he must help her support her sister while she recovers, and that Jo Ann left her a suicide note that she has yet to open. Her father tells her not to open it, and when she presses him about it (there is no such note) he screams into the phone, "I never touched that girl!" With that, the entire house of cards falls to the ground. Monica remembers the sensation of orgasm from her childhood, when she would lie still and pretend to sleep while a finger probed her. Her already horrible memories are forever smeared by a layer of filth that can never come clean.

One thing that jarred me, very much, was that in the epilogue Holloway describes a conversation she has years later with Julie Kilner, who still lives in her hometown. Julie recounts that the last time she saw Monica's father and asked about the girls, he responded that as far as he knows, they're not dead yet. For some inexplicable reason, this compels Monica to send her estranged father flowers with a note that says that she misses him every day and loves him. That was my what the fuck moment, when I officially stopped caring about this book. How do you write such an exposing tale of your life and end it by saying that you sent a monster an arrangement from 1-800-Flowers? What does that even mean? How can I be expected to feel anything but ambivalence for a woman who clearly doesn't even know how she feels about the situation?

Maybe I'm being unfair. I don't know. I was just disgusted by that. I respect Holloway for sharing her story with the world, but it left me feeling hollow and vaguely repulsed in its entirety. I need a few rounds of fiction to cleanse my palate.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Title Thirty Eight: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

If Sarina read this blog, she'd be looking for something handy to chuck at her monitor right now. I don't care. It's well known that Gone with the Wind is one of my favorite books (and films) and reading it makes me happy. There's a reason that it's both a classic and a masterpiece, friends. Whether or not you want to believe it is on you. My faith cannot be shaken.

You probably know the basic story - Scarlett O'Hara, Southern belle, is living an antebellum lifestyle at Tara as the eldest daughter of a Georgian plantation holder when the Civil War (or War Between the States/War of Northern Aggression, whatever) breaks out during the fateful barbecue at Twelve Oaks plantation, where she meets Rhett Butler for the first time. Scarlett wants Ashley Wilkes, but she can't have him, since he's going to marry his cousin Melanie Hamilton. Petty Scarlett decides to marry Melanie's brother Charles for spite, but it kind of backfires when Charles dies of illness in the war's early weeks. War, destruction, starvation and Reconstruction ensue; Scarlett travels from Tara to Atlanta and back, then marries her sister's fiance out from under her when she needs money for taxes to save the family home from falling into the hands of Carpetbaggers. When husband number two, Frank Kennedy, is killed during a Klan raid, Rhett finally swoops in and snatches up Scarlett, telling her that he can't go all his life waiting to catch her between husbands. As Mrs. Rhett Butler, Scarlett finally has enough money to keep her nightmare of being hungry and lost at bay, but there's no happy ending; when Scarlett and Rhett's daughter, Bonny, is killed in a fall from a horse and Melanie Wilkes dies in childbirth, Rhett leaves Scarlett, who has realized too late that all the time she imagined herself in love with Ashley, her heart really belonged to Rhett. Rhett doesn't have enough left in him to care, and utters his famous last words on his way out the door: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." Sobbing to herself on the stairs of their Atlanta mansion, Scarlett resolves to go back to Tara, start again, and find a way to get her husband back. Fin.

Look, it's a long book, and the movie cut out about a third of the story, and STILL needed an intermission.

What you might not realize is that GwtW isn't a potboiler or a love letter to slavery. It's a powerful, detailed, and rich portrayal of a time in American history that is often reduced to bare bones and dry facts in high school modules. Mitchell uses authentic dialogue and sweeping narrative to create two tales: the first, of a way of life and a class of people, both of which ended the second the first shot was fired on Fort Sumter. Mitchell does a masterful job of describing the war, martial law, poverty, loss, despair, and the Southerners' efforts to find a place in an alien world where the old rules and laws no longer apply. On another level is Scarlett's story; she never really belonged in the world of gentle, quiet women who oversaw homes and raised children. She is too much like her wild Irish father, too intelligent, too strong, and these traits are what keep her going, working her fingers to the bone in order to thrive while those around her are content to sit around, recounting tales of the old days and Confederate victories while letting life happen to them. Scarlett cannot rely on anyone but herself, and it makes her hard and bitter, but it also makes her real. She's not just a protagonist, but a heroine, clawing, scheming and plotting her way towards a life without fear but not realizing that the fear lives in her, and by the time she does, it's too late. She's too far from where she always intended to be but she recognizes that she just has to go on and find another way. Mitchell knew what she was doing when she created Katie Scarlett O'Hara. You should take some time to meet her.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Title Thirty Seven: Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman

Emelia falls for her married boss and breaks up his marriage. Next thing she knows, her two-day-old daughter dies of SIDS and she is stuck with an insufferably precocious 5-year-old stepson, William, who insists on puncturing the cocoon of grief she has built around herself. Everything she does makes her feel like a failure - as a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a stepmother; she is a failed lawyer and a homewrecker; she cannot breathe. Her husband's ex-wife, a respected and revered obstetrician to the elite of New York City, does everything she can to make Emilia's life a living hell while her husband, Jack, gives off an air of mere tolerance; eventually even his patience breaks and her life lies around in jagged pieces and she has no glue with which to reconstruct it.

I would probably wax rhapsodic about this novel except for one thing: it's really a love letter to Central Park. The book is rife with obscure factoids about the structure and history of the park; Emilia spends all of her time there; her memories center on it; entire chapters revolve around it. I GET IT. New Yorkers love Central Park. It is the greatest park in the history of parks. (At one point Emilia, the first person narrator, even says this in no uncertain terms.) Your life is empty if you don't live near Central Park. You are a philistine if you've never been to Central Park.

The Park is probably much more than just a reference point; I'm sure there's some great metaphor I'm missing, but it's wasted on me because I have a headache from the anvilliciousness of it all.

Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is a decently crafted book with a thoughtful exploration of the themes of loss, love, grief, and family. Sometimes I wanted to hug Emilia; sometimes I wanted to spank William; sometimes I wanted to shake Jack. Unfortunately, my investment in the characters was sporadic and half-hearted because the cover may as well have had an "I (Heart) NY" logo on the front. I would have been more emotionally involved in the story if it were less about geography. Or maybe I just missed the point entirely.

Title Thirty Six: Ask Again Later by Jill A. Davis

Boring. Vapid. Shallow. Insipid.

Oh, don't mind me. I'm just coming up with words to describe this transparent stab at chick lit. Who decides to publish this shit? I was intrigued by the idea of a story about a woman who uses her mother's breast cancer diagnosis as an excuse to abandon her career and gentleman friend and essentially hide from her life for a bit. I thought, "There could be something there. A real honest look at what it's like to be an adult but not know how to be a grownup." This is not that book.

Emily's father walked out when she was five. Her mother's a drama queen. Her sister's a socialite. Emily has spent her whole life being defined by her past (a point that she, as the first-person narrator, makes again and again and again until I wanted to throw the book against a wall). She became a lawyer because she didn't know what else to do. She's afraid of commitment. She dates a guy she works with until she quits the job and the relationship. She takes a gig as the receptionist at her father's law firm while she waits out her mother's lumpectomy. She visits her shrink a lot. She pushes back her cuticles. She ponders the fact that she's afraid of living but doesn't do anything about it. It's really this boring. Don't fucking read it.

Title Thirty Five: If I Am Missing Or Dead by Janine Latus

Look, I'm going to come right out and say it: this book was stupid. I feel very bad for the author and the fact that she suffered from such low self-esteem and that a shitty childhood with her pervy father led her into a marriage with a disgusting, abusive, nasty pig who thinks of nothing but fucking her after she has surgery to make her tits bigger because he wants them to be. It's a vile stream of recollections from someone who unfortunately spent most of her life trying to live up to or hide behind the images of herself that the men in her life have created. I'm sorry that Latus suffered this way for so many years, and only found the guts to claw her way out of the vicious cycle a couple of months before her beloved younger sister, who lived her life in much the same way, was murdered by her boyfriend. I just don't see the point to this book, I really don't. There isn't enough redemption to balance out the filth oozing off the page. I wanted to take a shower with a Brillo pad after I finished it. Again, I'm not mocking the plight of victims of domestic and sexual abuse; I just don't want to read page after page about it without there being something more substantial at the end than "after living with it for years and years and years and knowing something was wrong I finally got out." Latus is a writer for a living; this book should be better. I bought it because I thought it would have more to do with her sister Amy, and it didn't, so maybe that's why I'm so annoyed, but it's just a disappointment.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Title Thirty Four: Trauma by Patrick McGrath

It figures; I take a short break from memoirs and end up with two back-to-back works of fiction that read like memoirs. Surprisingly, I don't get bored. Maybe that means my expectations are low, but whatever.

Trauma, a dark and densely-written tale of a psychiatrist in New York City in the 1970s, has enough damage in one character to give you vicarious dysfunction. Charlie Weir had the life sucked out of him from an early age, at the mercy of a depressive mother, negligent father, and self-absorbed brother. This, of course, led him into a career in psychiatry, where he subsequently attempts to heal in other people what is irreparably broken in himself, specializing in the victims of trauma, both emotional and physical. At the start of his career, Charlie moderated a support group for Vietnam veterans. The most damaged patient, Danny, had a sister named Agnes who first sought out Charlie in attempts to understand her brother; eventually Charlie and Agnes married and had a daughter, but their life together was shattered on the night that Charlie found Danny dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Unable to deal with his guilt and Agnes' blame, Charlie fled the marriage, convinced that he could only do more harm than good. Several years later, the death of Charlie's mother brings Agnes back into his life and they become fuck buddies, even though Agnes is remarried. Shortly after, Charlie also meets an incredibly broken and unpredictable woman, Nora Chiara. Charlie sees Nora as his chance for redemption, and they begin a relationship where she moves in with him, but the relationship is stunted from the outset by Charlie's clinical detachment and continued trysts with Agnes while Nora's increasingly violent outbursts of temper and nightmares shred the tenuous fabric of their connection further. In the end, Charlie has lost what little happiness he may have felt during those few months and gained only a greater emptiness, yet he resolves to go on with his practice, perhaps never realizing that he will one day simply disappear into the despair that radiates from the people he tries to help.

It's not a light read, but it is a thought-provoking one. It simply may not provoke thoughts that you'd like to think. The author has a deft touch and a keen sense of human frailty and pain, and I'd like to explore some of his other work, but I don't know if this is a novel that I would ever pick up again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Title Thirty Three: Do Dead People Watch You Shower? by Concetta Bertoldi

If you see this book, run away. As quickly as possible. Bonus points if you set it on fire before you run. (Kidding.) (Kind of.)

Look, I admit to a certain fascination with ghosties. I love watching "Paranormal State" and have a slight crush on Ryan Buell. Okay, a big crush. I sort of want to have his babies. So I picked up this book hoping to find some interesting anecdotes about the life of a medium and her communications with the Other Side. Instead it was like being trapped at the kitchen table with a loudmouthed North Jersey paisan (I'm an Eyetal; I can say that) who refuses to let you leave until she has told you every detail of her life. "Oooh, look at me, I can see and hear dead people! I bring comfort to grieving family and friends! "They" told me who I was going to marry! I know so much more than you but I can't prove it but dammit you need to believe me because I am an expert!" Shut up and shove a cannoli in your mouth. Your writing is trite, vain, and has the skill level of a dyslexic middle schooler. (This is not a jab at the writer's dyslexia, or anyone else's for that matter; she is simply a poor author, incapable of writing more than one paragraph for many of the "chapters" of the book.)

The only heartwarming segments deal with Bertoldi's experiences with the deaths of her father and brother. They were, and still are, evidently devastating and painful, and if her communications and visits with them have brought her some comfort, then I'm glad that what she calls her "gift" has allowed that. Otherwise, it's a lot of showmanship with little substance. She trumpets her small validations and chalks her failures up to a sort of "Oh, only God is perfect, and I won't be perfect until I am one with Him" mentality. There's a lot of pseudo-New Agey crap sprinkled liberally throughout the book, especially pertaining to her concept that those who go "home" arise to a different plane of consciousness and cease to exist as separate entities, instead becoming a part of God, shedding all earthly constraints. I don't know about you, but when I get to heaven I want to find great sex, exquisite chocolate, flowering gardens and beautiful beaches, along with high-quality scotch flowing like a river and books as far as the eye can see. I want to enjoy my earthly senses to the fullest. In the end I decided that Bertoldi is a hack, which may be unfair, but hell, it's my opinion and my review.