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.