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.