Monday, February 27, 2012

Whales and more asylums

Book: She’s Come Undone

Author: Wally Lamb

Published: 1992 (Washington Square Press)

Pages: 465

This is my original entry into screwed up childhood-crazy person-sex-drugs-mental institution redemption narratives. I first read it when I was like twelve, which you should read as any time between early middle school and late high school because that shit is starting to blur together in memory as nature intends.

You should also read that as a very impressionable time in my reading life, where anything with sex and honesty and a girl who imagined mold growing over her food to lose weight she had gained while sheltering herself with junk and TV after being raped and who ended up the caretaker of a sass-talking eighty-year-old polka radio host as her happy ending sort of blew my mind.

Note that I sound jaded, and take that as evidence that Lamb’s first book has lost some of its original shock value. But note also that his honesty, for-the-hell-of-it plot building, and skepticism of any real definition of “normal” are still wrapped in a compelling human package that kept me from doing anything productive Saturday afternoon and all of yesterday.

I love how Dolores’s gentle stalking of her college roommate’s ex-fiancĂ© delivers her right into what she thinks she wants, only to cling to its idealism too long before finally ripping free. I hate how she finally gives in to the “right” guy for her and ends up being rescued instead of making it on her own, although I love how she takes advantage of his crush on her to proposition him into becoming her sperm donor. But love finds a way, yadda yadda yadda. All of Lamb’s last chapters have that tying-up-loose-ends gloss that none of them actually need.

But Lamb is always excellent at making me care about his characters, and this book was only $1 at the Friends of the Library Shop that I always wander into because I can’t actually check out books in Lexington County, and I’m glad to have it on my shelves to visit like a friend when we feel like we need each other. 

Crazypants tour of Arkham part 1!

Book: Batman: Joker’s Asylum

Writers: Arvid Nelson, Jason Aaron, JT Krul, Joe Harris, and David Hine

Artists: Alex Sanchez, Jason Pearson, Guillem March, Juan Doe, and Andy Clarke

Published: 2008 (DC)

Pages: 124

From my limited first-hand (first-eyes?) experience with comics, I know that I like the Batman universe. I also know that the Joker is my favorite villain and Arkham Asylum is my favorite setting because they’re both so damn gleefully creepy. Therefore, I thought this slim volume of Joker-narrated, one-off villain-led tales would be a good start as my own venture into the gi-fucking-normous continuity, the first superhero comic I have not read by trading off on my boyfriend’s assurance that it’s awesome. (Although I still love those recommendations because 1. he’s always right about them and 2. they mean I get to make him read lit fic novels that he will end up enjoying too.)

I was right! Although such choosing logic doesn’t allow for the unexpected emotional left hook I’m always looking for, I did get several expected taps to the chin from this. Each story is drawn and written by different people, so the weak morality tale of the first story (everybody fears the Joker but he’s not the monster this time! It’s YOU PEOPLE and all he’s doing is exposing your own bloodlust through reality TV!) and the Lady or the Tiger? ending of the last (the reader flips a coin to see how deeply Two-Face has affected a guy with his same burn condition!) are isolated incidents. The Penguin’s story is my favorite, drawn rounded with parallels that visually connect his past and present in an obvious psychological path without getting him monologing. Oh, except for these couple of panels where he’s talking about this girl he’s fallen in love with while his henchmen get thrown around in front of him, and then Batman drops down and says he’ll be watching him and the Penguin goes, all day-dreamy distracted, “Yes, yes, see you next week.”

But then he discovers that he can’t, in fact, overcome his past after all, and he returns to form by taking out his anger on the one thing that was starting to rebuild his humanity. It was pretty sweet.

Poison Ivy’s is basically an origin story with naked leafy ass, and the Scarecrow gets some neat deco art but a disappointingly thin connection between his talk about harnessing fear and the actual action. All enjoyable, and I believe there is a Volume II on the shelves. 

Troubled life as told through good food

Book: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Author: Gabrielle Hamilton

Published: 2011 (Random House)

Pages: 291

All throughout reading this book, I daydreamed about what to cook for future meals of my own. None of them remotely resembled the meals Hamilton was describing, which, and hang with me for a second, I count as good food writing because she caught me up in the actual act of creating and making food rather than imitating her, room-temperature-egg for room-temperature-egg.

She started out in a family where her dad held annual lamb roasting parties and her mom always had something on the stove and Hamilton herself fell into waitressing, catering, and finally running her own kitchen as a way of scratching independence out of a hostile mess of early drug addiction and neglect.

And it works fairly well--by chaining her to 18-hour days in an industry she never really wanted to stay in, true, and giving her a green-card husband she married for the hell of it and spends a ridiculous amount of time and energy on considering how they don’t actually love each other. It’s this that casts a weird mist of doom onto the whole back half of her narrative; the part that is usually reserved for unconditional redemption made me worry about the life choices she seems to know were kind of shitty even as she lives with them. It’s refreshing to read a memoir that doesn’t advertise hard work as a guaranteed ticket to happiness, that cooking embraces her as she embraces it but it still takes work on both sides just like any loving relationship.

But… I keep going back to her husband, and why they tried to act like a real family even when they had no reason or incentive or pressure to do so. It’s disturbing in a quiet way that she never explains and presents as a fairly normal if troubled fact of her life. Possibly she stayed for a bigger sense of community in their annual trips to his family in Italy, something she had never been a part of before and might not have a chance to be a part of any other way? Maybe? I don’t know.

Her use of food as a way of expressing her fighting chance in life makes me care. Her writing is excellent.

Monday, February 20, 2012

One more chance (because I checked out so many)

Book: The Flamenco Academy

Author: Sarah Bird

Publication: 2006 (Knopf)

Pages: 381

The history and tradition of flamenco is fascinating. The flimsy tale of romantic obsession Bird uses as an excuse to write about flamenco is not.

Her characters are interesting: a shy young girl who discovers flamenco as a way to a tortured guitarist’s heart, her best friend who needs attention in the same way of oxygen, the guitarist himself as he wrestles with mysteries of his identity that could make or break him in the flamenco world. They’re human enough to recognize and empathize with, and they provide crucial insights into a rarified subculture as outsiders who gain access throughout the tale.

Or that’s what they do in my head, when I really want to like this opera-on-page. In reality, there are no actual examples of them doing this, as in you have to take the narrative voice’s word for practically every character development. It baffles me why Bird thought it was a good idea to pull back the camera and use so much exposition. SO MUCH EXPOSITION, y’all. I want her to go full-out Gypsy fairy tale for this thing or add some fucking DIALOUGE between the shy girl and the minimal amount of people she’d have to interact with to become as good at flamenco as she is.

But Bird’s writing fluctuates. At least three people tell dramatic tales of their origins and secrets that take up chapters at a time. I wish she would’ve just expanded those until they touched each other and made a narrative that mimics flamenco’s mysterious, overly emotional depth framed by traditional structure.

Everything was harped on so fucking much, too, like she thought the reader would forget every few pages. And so many metaphors to describe the dance and the music. SO MUCH.

Sigh. I checked out Bird’s The Boyfriend School and The Mommy Club in this same batch because I love The Yokota Officer’s Club so much, but I can’t do it. They’re due back this week and I’ll take the gamble that I won’t regret reading her take on getting boyfriends back or surrogate motherhood.    

Friday, February 17, 2012

End of the world, Stephen King style

Book: The Stand (Complete and Uncut Edition)

Author: Stephen King

Published: 1991 (Signet)

Pages: 1141

You can gauge my stress level fairly accurately by the size of the Stephen King book I reach for to read yet again. This one is epic.

 It’s about a superflu epidemic that kills almost everyone in the world, and how the few who survive find each other and divide into good and evil camps depending on which shared supernatural dream pulls them harder.

I’ve reread it enough to sort of transcend the plot and focus on the underpinning of the story and how King scaffolds such a giant piece of writing. It surprises me how well he does, especially when I see that ominous subtitle “The Complete and Uncut Edition.” The 1991 version is the only one I know, which might be why I can’t tell where he’s added stuff. None of it reads as clumsily grafted on, although there are the usual bursts of overly witty banter and slightly stilted pop culture references that don’t add much except to the permissions granted list in the front.

 About the good and evil: in this book, it’s explicitly a Christian battle, which I don’t have a problem with because it’s a good shorthand that means King doesn’t have to go super deep into explaining it and is free to instead explore details. But his Good People are awfully Good for no grounded reasons other than “Well, it’s the RIGHT thing to do.” The only one who spells out why it’s an even more terrible sin to murder now—because people are far more precious—is the lady who is drawn the strongest to the Dark Man because he wants her to bear his son so she goes to the evil side anyway.

The people on the bad side are just so much more interesting than the Good People. The Bad People have more complex motivations and darker instincts they don’t suppress, or else they give into them after torturous inner turmoil. To be fair, most of the Good People have their share of inner turmoil too, it’s just directed at overcoming personal traits that seem like relatively small potatoes when stacked against the new fate of the human race. Still fun to read, though, and the end is an excellent mixture of creepy undertones that suggest the surface optimism will not end up justified.

It’s a good thick slab of Uncle Stevie’s Story Time, a long one-way conversation for when I want to stay the hell out of my own headspace for awhile.       

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Not all of them have a moral.

Book: Preacher: Gone to Texas

Writer: Garth Ennis

Artist: Steve Dillon

Published: 1996 (DC, fancy paperback edition)

Pages: 199

So now I know what a face without a jaw but otherwise unharmed looks like. Also, can a guy (different one) survive with the skin of his face peeled off? I want to say yes. All he’s missing is covering and some small nerve endings, right? And do all angels have Mohawk-shaped hair they leave flowing instead of spiked? Why do the scientist/peon angels have to wear sweatsuits? What exactly are the removable pointy metal bits used for on the priest’s shirt collar? And can the journalist please keep his fedora on? I mean, it’s ugly, but the one time he took it off it looked like something has been chewing on his hair.

 This pales, of course, next to the hard-drinking curse-spitting easy-going Irish vampire and his ingenious use of his regenerative abilities. I mention him first because he’s my favorite. There’s the preacher who’s lost his faith and then been possessed by the unholy union of archangel and she-demon; he’s looking for literal God, who has abandoned heaven. And Tulip, the preacher’s ex, who has abandoned her no-firearms rule but not her piss and vinegar about getting dumped and stranded five years ago.

Oh! And poor Arseface, the son of a Texas sheriff. He shot himself because Kirk Cobain did, but Arseface survived with a giant crater where his mouth/nose/eyebrows used to be and a fierce protective instinct for the father who scorned him. He doesn’t have much of a role…this time. We leave him yelling “From now on I will be Arseface!” to the sky in the best supervillain tradition, somewhere roughly ¾ of the way through the actual story.

I’m sorry this is scattered. It’s how my brain ran through this comic, and let me tell you, it was a hell of a good time. This is volume 1 in a decently long series, but it ended neatly and with an open wink: “There are a million stories in this naked city. Not all of them have a moral.”

Excuse me while I go paste that over my writing space now

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Texas and stereotypes and women and GAH

Book: How Perfect Is That

Author: Sarah Bird

Published: 2008 (Knopf)

Pages: 302

Strap in, y’all. This is a shouty one.


Her social-climbing protagonist bitches about climbing back to the top where she can by $5,000 and lord it over her old frienemies SO MUCH that by Chapter 2, I was actively routing for the IRS to haul her away. (THEY WERE NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN.)
She bitched so much about staying in the old “hippie” college dorm of hers that took her in FOR NO GOOD REASON AT ALL that I was actively routing for them to vote her out in their pretend-suspenseful House Vote of Doom while she sat there batting her fucking eyelashes and handing out fucking brownies so she could stay in the very place that she trashed.

She’s the one that gets everybody else in trouble through her own stupid fucking fault, yet they’re the ones that end up pitching in to her whacky scheme to save her own ass DOING THE EXACT SAME THINGS THAT GOT HER AND THEM SO DEEPLY IN TROUBLE IN THE FIRST PLACE.



Unlikable (I mean I really, really hate her) protagonist. Relationships that make Jon and Garfield look like sophisticated colleagues. Leaps of logic that everyone should’ve poked SO MANY GODDAMN HOLES THROUGH, pretending There Is No Other Choice just because the author can’t think of any—all of these things make me angry, all of these things make me hate this book and groan about how many War and Peaces women are going to have to write to get beyond this prototypical “chick lit” that shits on every fun quirky instinct ladywriters have.

But—SARAH BIRD YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THIS. Have you COMPLETELY LOST IT since The Yokota Officers’ Club? That remains one of the best, most complex yet typical families I’ve ever read about, with such a unique mouthpiece in Bertie and, more importantly, her younger sister who is a complete bitch yet ENTIRELY SYMPATHETIC AND HUMAN  that there is NO POSSIBLE WAY you wrote like this on accident.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Brothers and sisters

Book: The Sibling Effect: What the Bonds Among Brothers and Sisters Reveal About Us

Author: Jeffrey Kluger

Published: 2011 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 295

At a business dinner the other week, the girl next to me kept saying, “You look really familiar…” until I found out where she works and blurted out, “OH if you work there, you probably know This Guy! I dated his brother for awhile.” (I still can’t hold my wine, okay?) She said she’d always wanted to meet This Guy’s brother because she’d heard they were completely different from each other.

And they WERE. I got a front seat to that shiznit, how even their hair grew in as opposite textures. Being a nosy only kid, I mentally recorded it all with a fascination that possibly prevented me from defending This Guy’s brother as much as I should’ve.

Turns out most of the sibling-ism people talk about have some sort of scientific, statistical basis, although whether or not the results come about because of actual biology or social conventions depends on which trait you’re looking at and when it becomes apparent in the kid’s development stages. First kids and only kids usually ARE worried about, doted on, and expected to make more of themselves because of simple resource allotment; they get first crack at Mom and Dad’s energy and sense of novelty and chance at putting away money for college. This usually DOES create type-A firsties, although this can jump to the girl in an otherwise all-boy family because she usually ends up shouldering the traditional gender role of caretaking unless she’s like ten years younger than everyone else. Behavior influences slide up AND down the line if the sibs are close enough in age.

Just all this cool stuff treated with the proper social science skepticism, sprinkled liberally with personal anecdotes of the author’s life growing up with three brothers and then a couple stepsisters on both sides. Holy shit, do the personal details get better exponentially. Kluger doesn’t bash you over the head with all of his problems at once; he slides them into perfect contexts that took me a beat to realize oh wait, those actually happened TO HIM. He’s so calm about it, but not unemotional.

It’s great! I got enough science to convince me I learned a bunch, with enough personal narration to satisfy the part of my brain that needs visible human figures at all times. A really excellent read. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reading Franzen

Book: How to Be Alone

Author: Jonathan Franzen

Published: 2002, 2003 (Picador)

Pages: 306

Franzen’s fiction is brutal. I remember reading The Corrections in—high school? No. Some summer I was home from college. It was a Nancy Carson Library copy, anyway, which meant I was in North Augusta-- and feeling just awful afterwards because I had spent I forget how many hundreds of pages in the presence of these people who were draw with all of their considerable flaws thrown in the glaring spotlight of a family uncoiling. I read Freedom about a year after it came out, too, experiencing the same thing only on an even more epic, and political, scale. Whew. That has been experienced and doesn’t have to be again.

But then I listened to the audio book version of Freedom. Twenty-five CDs for that motherfucker, and I was able to sort through his prose better, to start finding—hearing—the humanity under the surface. It was still hard and cynical, but in a way I could understand and relate to. In a way that made me understand his characters and respect their decisions a little bit more. Plus, this book’s title got my attention because I am terrible at being alone and so are all Franzen’s characters and that’s why they make some of their desperate choices that turn them into people they never planned to be.

So, 254 words into this review, I finally get to the actual essays in the book: They are golden. I came in with the opposite expectations I had for Zadie Smith, and while Franzen kept his authorial distance in his excellent investigative journalism (he goes back so far into the Chicago area post office for a story it’s like he’s doing a root canal), he was really insightful and intimate when he got personal. If he has any fiction written in first person, I want to read that to see if that would bring me into the fold like his essays about his family and his book club feud with Oprah did in this book.

What hit me as odd at the end of each section were the years in which they were written. The ‘90s, man. These essays have kept their flavor long enough for my younger cousins to grow taller than I am. It’s always cool, if a little exhausting, to work through an author like this.