Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Title Nineteen: Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

Looking back over this here blog, I see that I've been on a memoir kick, which might help explain why I've not been very interested in reading over the last few weeks. It's not that the books I've read aren't well done; in fact, it's the opposite. Being pulled into something like Manic or Beautiful Boy is wearying because, when done well, a memoir puts you in the place of the author, and you relive all of the pain, sadness, and horror with her or him.

Beautiful Boy is writer David Sheff's account of his son Nic's transformation from a sweet, intelligent and outgoing child into a lying, cheating, stealing meth addict. Sheff starts where a good memoirist should, at the beginning, with Nic's birth. He is detailed and unsparing, telling of the hazy happiness of Nic's early years and then the pain of his divorce from Nic's mother, who moves from San Francisco to Los Angeles, setting Nic up for a custody arrangement that pulls him between the two places on a consistent basis. The story threads its way through Sheff's remarriage and the births of his two younger children, Jasper and Daisy, and weaves in and out of Nic's formative years and his seemingly bright childhood. Nic Sheff was smart, athletic, and creative, and when David discovers marijuana in his preteen son's backpack, he doesn't quite know how to handle it. He's done all of the things the experts tell parents to do, and spoken openly with Nic about his own drug use and the dangers of doing drugs. He takes Nic's word that he only tried it once and didn't like it, and doesn't see that under the surface of this ideal high schooler, with his stellar grades and likeable personality, is a young man experimenting with alcohol and harder drugs, until the day that Nic first disappears and then calls, begging to be picked up in an alley, where he confesses that he's been using meth. David had his own experience with the drug once, in college, and is horrified. He begins a journey to find as much information and help for his son possible while Nic goes down a horrific road of abuse, rehab, and relapse.

Beautiful Boy is different from a lot of drug memoirs in its broad scope. It doesn't only focus on the addict, but also on the friends and family around him, and Sheff also incorporates a lot of the research that he did while trying to help his son and provides an impressive education on treatment options, the pitiful lack of effective substance abuse treatment care available - it seems that rehab is as much of a business as Big Pharma, and just as dependent on return customers - and the physiology of drug abuse, particularly with regards to brain chemistry and meth. According to the many experts that David Sheff consults over the years, meth is the single most dangerous drug available with regards to what it does to the user's brain structure; meth, more than cocaine or heroin or any other street drug, actually destroys the brain tissue and turns it to mush. The damage is usually permanent and makes meth addiction the most lethal substance abuse issue today. What makes this book so gripping is that it's written by a father who doesn't know how to help his son, but can't let go of him either; there are snatches of song lyrics and poems intertwined with vignettes and memories of Nic before the addiction. Nic is such a likeable and engaging person when he isn't on drugs that you can't help but root for him, and it's crushing each time he relapses. The Sheffs, and, by proxy, the readers, walk on eggshells, waiting for the next wave of bad news, wondering where their beautiful boy has gone and if he's ever coming back.

If you have an ounce of empathy, you can't help but ache for this family. They never thought that it would happen to them; Nic was raised with love and good schools and supportive parents and adoring siblings. At times helplessness and despair radiate off the page, and at one point I realized that I was holding my breath as I was reading. It's a good book, but it's draining because Sheff's writing draws you in and invites you to pull up a chair and watch while a family falls apart. In other words, it does its job. The question you have to ask yourself, as a reader, is whether or not you can handle it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Title Eighteen: He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo

Relax, fools. I didn't pay for this nonsense, nor did I borrow it from a library, friend, or family member. The truth is that my cousin bought it back when it came out when it was all the rage (and she was dating really horrific losers) and somehow managed to sneak it into one of my many bookshelves when she moved in with the guy who is now her husband. Sure, cuz, way to pass off your literary embarrassments on the girl who has so many freaking books she wouldn't notice if a tiny little family took up residence among her collection.

Anyway, when all the hoopla surrounding the movie came out, I thought to myself, "Self, I have seen that book in this house. Why have I seen that book in this house?" When I discovered the answer (see above paragraph), I climbed back into my mind and said, "You know what would be funny? If you actually read this turd. You need a good laugh."

Let me just say, wow. Women bought this? And formed groups around it? And made it their Bible - kind of the New Testament to The Rules' Old Testament? Look, it's pretty basic. If the dude: is married; doesn't return phone calls; disappears into thin air; only calls you when drunk; won't introduce you to his friends; only calls you for sex; or wants to be your boyfriend but won't have sex with you, you don't need a book by a douchenozzle to tell you that. You just need either common sense or a really honest friend and a bottle of wine.

I would recommend this book for a laugh, but it's not even worth that. Just do a Mad Libs or something. It would be time much better spent.

Side note: At the end there is a "glossary" that is supposed to help you figure out what a word is supposed to mean and what it really does mean; for example, "I'm not ready" should mean "I can't find my pants," but instead means "I'm just not that into you." I had to laugh at the entry that went like this: "Call me." "Should mean: I just dropped my cell phone in the ocean and lost your number." "Does mean: I'm just not that into you." The reason I thought it was funny is because my ex-boyfriend actually did drop his phone into the bay while fishing a couple of summers ago and I thought he would have a stroke, but since we were together at the time, and had been for years, I didn't have to worry that he had lost my number because it was in his head. Besides, we lived together, so there really wasn't any excuse not to call. (The point is that I'm trying to pad this damn review because it sucks.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Title Seventeen: Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell

You know what? This book was a piece of horse shite. It doesn't even deserve a review but some innocent trees died just so that it could be printed, and then I wasted valuable moments of my life reading it when I could have been doing something else, like scrubbing my toilet or pondering Barack Obama's economic stimulus package or wondering why I can't rock short hair like Jayne and Rachel Maddow or re-watching the heartbreaking conclusion to the second series of Doctor Who and crying my eyes out over Rose standing on the beach with mascara running down her cheeks while she chokes out "I...I love you" and the Doctor looks back at her with all this longing in his holographic eyes and manages a "Quite right, too" and SWEET CRACKER SANDWICH THIS BOOK WAS HORRIFIC.

Kay Scarpetta was the best forensic medical examiner in the history of the world but now she's not but they don't say why, and her weird niece Lucy is some law enforcement genius who left the government and runs a private firm and kills bad guys and flies a helicopter, and some fat detective named Marino loves Scarpetta but he's fat and alcoholic and has a peptic ulcer, I think, and Scarpetta never thought of him that way anyway so he just keeps eating and drinking and being gross. Kay's ex-lover Benton is dead BUT HE REALLY ISN'T he's just undercover and she doesn't know it and this crazy werewolf man (yes, seriously, they call him Loup Garoux because he has hair all over his body and is a deformed freak with pointy baby teeth and no peen) is on death row in Texas because he tried to kill Scarpetta many books ago, and she gets all wrapped up in his case again for reasons that are never made clear. Meanwhile, Wolfman Freakypants has a really good-looking twin brother who is also a murderer and kills women in Louisiana and feeds them to alligators with the help of his twisted fuck of a fatass lover Bev. They live in a bayou shack. Scarpetta gets tied into all of this because she gives a seminar at the beginning of the book and one of the students is from the area where WolfyFace's brother is hacking the wimmens and that student gives her a blow fly in a jar. (SERIOUSLY.) The only other time that blow flies come up is when Lucy stages a suicide and tries to use the buggers (see what I did there?) to throw off time of death, but it ultimately doesn't work and no one mentions blow flies again for the rest of this pointless tripe. At the end the Wolfman escapes from Death Row and is in the wind, his brother and brother's ladyfriend get shot by Lucy, and Scarpetta meets up with Benton and realizes he's not dead, and sits down on some stairs to try to take it in. The end.

Really. It ends right there. No postscript, nothing. Just, "Hey, you're dead." "No, I'm not. I had to fake my death to keep you safe." "You're a bastard." Sits down. Blank pages follow. I have questions, dammit! Where's NoPeenWolf? Where did the rest of your crew go? Why do people keep buying Cornwell's books? Why is Cornwell even allowed to write books? Is this the worst book I've ever read? When will the stimulus package pass, and what will be included? Do I have enough toilet bowl cleaner? Why do I still cry at an episode of a cheesy sci-fi show that I have seen over a dozen times? Am I really still wasting time on this review? Not anymore, I'm not.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Title Sixteen: The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

For Civil War buffs like me, Robert Hicks has created a well-told tale of the Battle of Franklin. In November 1864, the Union and Confederate forces met on the outskirts of this nondescript Tennessee town and clashed in a bloody battle that left 9,200 men dead and had far-reaching ramifications for not only the town's residents but the soldiers on both sides. Carrie McGavock, a grieving mother of three whose husband and two surviving children mean little to her as she inhabits a ghost world where her dead children still live, laugh, and play, finds her home, Carnton, rudely turned into a field hospital for the Confederate wounded. This snaps Carrie back to a reality she never wanted to see again and transforms her from a shadow woman into an efficient nurse, house mistress, and sparks a love between this refined gentlewoman and a crude Cracker soldier named Zachariah Cashwell, with whom Carrie spends hours, not caring what anyone may think - not her husband, John, her slave, Mariah, nor Mariah's son Theopolis. Carrie tends to the dead and dying, writing to their families and hoping against hope that Zachariah will not be taken from her too, but it is not meant to be when he is pronounced fit enough to be carried off by the Union army to a prison camp and Mariah once again loses a piece of herself. However, this time she is stronger and begins to fight for what she believes in, refusing to accept that the dead men buried in her fields can be forgotten.

Other characters weave in and out of the narrative, which takes the form of journal entries or perspectives from Union soldiers and Cashwell himself, as well as third-person accounts of John McGavock and Mariah's forays into the ravaged town of Franklin. Franklin itself becomes a symbol of the defeated South itself, from burned buildings and destroyed roads to the homes and shops of free issue slaves. Cashwell escapes his prison and goes to work for a time on the railroads, but something pulls him inexorably back towards Franklin, Carnton, and Carrie. The Widow of the South is a love story in a similar vein as Gone with the Wind, but the two could not be more different. The two novels share only the descriptions of the hardship of the "War Between the States," the loss of so many brave men who died for nothing, the poverty and hunger of the aftermath, and the jarring difference between life before and after the war. Carrie and Zachariah's love is not epic or sweeping, like that of Scarlett and Rhett; it is more basic, more earthy, and more real.*

Towards the end of the novel, the McGavocks realize that a wealthy neighbor who owns most of their land (John having sold it off, piece by piece over the years to finance, at first, his family's lifestyle and later, his incessant drinking, the only activity which gives him solace) has decided to dig up the graves of the boys who died on the McGavock property - on the carpets, the floors, the porch, in the yard, and whose amputated limbs were dumped like so much chattel out of the kitchen windows and doors during cruel field operations. This neighbor hates the Confederacy because his only son left to fight for the Cause and was killed instantly on the Franklin battlefield. Carrie musters every ounce of rage, horror, and deviousness in her heart and mind and blackmails old Mr. Baylor into leaving the ground undisturbed. It is then that Carrie McGavock undertakes the greatest project of her life: turning those fields into one of the largest, if not the largest, Confederate cemetery in existence, erecting a marker at each grave and keeping a detailed log of each soldier in a book that never leaves her side as she makes her daily rounds, dressed in old, neatly-mended black, accompanied by the faithful (and psychically gifted) Mariah. Carrie continues these rounds into her old, widowed age, and the novel is nicely bookended by scenes of her, going about her caretaker's business, in 1894, when a mysterious man returns to Carnton. If you've read this far, you already know that Zachariah Cashwell, suffering from consumption, has come back to his home - which is both Carrie and Carnton - to die.

What struck me most, besides the honesty and keen attention to detail of Hicks' novel, was the fact that Carrie McGavock was a real person and Hicks leaves no stone unturned in his research. It's a beautiful, haunting, and excellently-written book that I strongly recommend to anyone with a love of history, Americana, true patriotism, human compassion, and the strength of the human spirit.

*GwtW remains my favorite novel to this day.