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 www.pajiba.com.

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.