A Few Brief Comments on Books I Need to Return to the Library–“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and “Push”

…before they take out a contract and start posting my picture at all the branches.

Cover illustration for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark HaddonMark Haddon’s bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been on my to-read list for years. It’s one of those bestsellers that even my writer friends rave about.

There’s defiantly something special about this book. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Hoddon’s severely autistic main character, Christopher narrates with a striking combination of literal observations, misinterpretations, dramatic irony, and involved tangents about maths.

The story begins when Christopher finds the body of his neighbor’s poodle, stabbed with a garden fork in her front yard, but, as in the original “curious incident,” the dog is somewhat incidental, a clue and a catalyst, rather than the heart of the story. The “murder” of the dog inspires Christopher to write a murder mystery about the crime for school, leading to conversations with neighbors, confrontations with his father, and eventually, the uncovering of a much larger truth about his own life, and the people close to him.

The work does have it’s challenging moments. Christopher is a prickly character, at times difficult to like, but his novel and intricate voice keeps readers engaged. His frustrated and overworked parents are similarly difficult to empathize, though the difficulties inherent in raising Christopher do make them a bit more sympathetic. The novel decrescendos in a rather rushed style, wrapping up all the loose ends in a way that makes the author’s hand show a little too clearly.

Overall, however, I found this a fascinating, original novel.

Cover illustration for Push by SapphireI read the beginning of Push for the first time on Amazon’s search inside. Normally, I haven’t got much patience for that particular feature (hate how they skip pages!), but when I discovered Push, I just couldn’t look away. The novel’s famous vernacular narration is exquisite and compelling. Though she is sometimes criticized as a foil, the narrator comes through, clear and whole, as far as I am concerned.

So, why’s it taken me three library renewals and who knows how much in fines to finish it?

This is a bit of a spoiler, but I’m just going to go ahead and say it: it’s after she gets HIV. It was just so horrifically heart breakingly awful. As a reader, you become so sympathetic to this character, and so absorbed in her personality, and then she gets this news and just collapses, and you’re right there with her.

I put it away for a while.

Not that I’m recommending that for anyone else.

Push, by legendary slam poet Sapphire, tells the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, an illiterate and 15-year-old girl living in Harlem with her abusive mother. Pregnant with her second child by her vicious rapist father, Precious is expelled from public school but referred to an alternative school where she meets teacher and mentor Ms. Rain, develops her literacy (and literary) skills, and becomes one in a tight community of young women students.

Kicked out of her mother’s house after the birth of her son, Abdul, Precious finds shelter in a half-way-house near school, and really begins to come into her own.

Then, her mother tells her than her father had died of AIDS, and more questions about Precious’ future arise. Ultimately, the author leaves the conclusion of Precious’ story ambiguous. Having criticized Alice Walker for the fairy tale ending of The Color Purple through the voice of her narrator, Sapphire ends her own tale on a tenuously, precariously hopeful note–but no more.

Anagrams, Lorrie Moore

Cover art for Anagrams by Lorrie MooreThere are more puns in Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams than I have heard in the whole rest of my life combined. During the weeks I spent reading this novel, I became an obsessive word play spotting machine. One of the teachers at work was creating a homophone matching game with index cards. I completely lost control. Be and Bee. Night and Knight. See and Sea. Meet and Meat. Fare and Fair. I actually uttered the explanatory phrase, “Feet like feet, and feat like a ‘feat of daring do.” I may or may not have punched my fist into the air as I said that. Bazaar and Bizarre. I couldn’t stop myself.

Anyway (or, as Lorrie Moore’s main character would say, “anyways….”)

Anagrams tells the story of Benna and Gerard. Sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, their relationship is profound and difficult to pin down. The novel begins with three chapter-length vignettes. In the first, Benna is a night club singer, Gerard her near-beer guzzling, secretly admiring neighbor. Then, Benna is a geriatric aerobics instructor in a troubled relationship with Gerard. Then, they are a separating couple holding a garage sale (Sale and Sail). Through it all, Benna’s best friend Eleanor offers a funny if sometimes slightly disturbing counterpoint–cheating with Gerard, selling an old skirt and neglige at at the garage sale.

Then, abruptly, the short stories give way to a broader more novelistic approach. In all her incarnations, Benna a character terrified of movement, change, relationships, and connections. In this version she’s stalled out somewhere just short of her doctorate, retreating into a fictional life. Benna is a widow, a struggling poetry professor at a less than prestigious junior college who spends her days hanging out with a cheerful semi-alcholic lounge singing Gerard and fantasizing about an imaginary daughter and best friend (Eleanor, again).

In my reading of the work, it’s this longest section that is the true one, or, at least, the most true. Partly, this is simply because it is the longest. Also the most depressing. But more importantly, this is the part of the story that offers some explicit meaningful symbolism,

some clue to what it’s all about.

Midway through this longer, more novelistic section, the main character recounts the story of her separation from her late husband, a few months before his suicide. The couple are brushing their teeth side by side the morning after a big fight. Her husband says, “I never want to see you again,” but she hears “I want to see again” and a confusing and embarrassing discussion ensues. Benna reflects,

“When I was little, I didn’t understand that you could change a few sounds in a name or phrase and have it mean something entirely different…I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. That buddy Holly and Billie Holiday were the same person. That Leon Trotsky and Leo Tolstoy were the same person….Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.”

The anagram metaphor, this idea of twisted reality–the same but different–lies at the center of Moore’s story.

While this novel is, like all Moore’s work, clever, poignant, and stylistically excellent, it’s not my favorite. As a reader, I became distracted and occasionally even bored. The concept behind Anagrams is fascinating and the execution is strong, but when you get right down to it, not much happens in this novel. I can only spend so long peering over the shoulder of an profoundly disassociated character as she drags through her days. Even the best writing in the world can only carry something like that for so long.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Aimee Bender

Cover art for The Girl in the Flammable SkirtThere’s really nothing bad I can possibly say about The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. I honestly really loved it. Bender strikes a delicate balance between whimsical, eccentric content and constrained, precise prose, juxtaposing magical realist fare against a clear, open voice, threaded with subtle humor.

These short, surreal tales are difficult to summarize, and they probably sound more fantastical in descriptions than they feel when you experience them. A woman watches her lover experience reverse evolution, transitioning from man, to ape, to sea turtle, and beyond; a mermaid and an imp hide out in high school; a girl follows her one night stand down a man hole; an orphaned boy develops a gift for finding lost things; a stolen ruby ring turns the ocean red.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt reminded me of a lot of things. A darker, starker, and more modern Francesca Lia Block; a more feminine George Saunders; a Melissa Bank who writes of people with giant holes through their abdomens, instead of people with cancer. But that’s not to say it isn’t original–Bender definitely stakes out her own spot on the post modern magical realist chick-lit-leaning continuum.

I’m looking forward to reading more of her stuff.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

Cover image for Skippy Dies by Paul MurrayFINALLY! I finished Skippy Dies! And I only had to renew it three times and pay $4.90 in late fees. I probably could have saved money by picking up a used copy, but frankly I don’t need my own; I won’t be reading this book again.

Not that it’s not good, exactly. It’s just, in some fundamental sense, not genuine. A bit too cute and a bit too ironic. Also, about 250 pages too long. This book says nothing in 661 pages that couldn’t have been said in 400. Easily. And possibly more compellingly.

Skippy Dies is a medley of interconnected narratives concerning the students and teachers of Seabrook College, a Catholic boy’s school in Dublin. At the center of the story is Daniel “Skippy” Juster, a sweet, nerdy 14-year-old with a troubled inner life and a huge crush on the beautiful Lori (a.k.a Frisbee girl), a student at the neighboring girls school. The complete strata of the high school universe is represented in frequently sympathetic, always slightly mocking terms–the geeky science nerd, the frustrated over-achiever, the bully/nemesis, the goofy friends, downtrodden teachers, and blow-hard faculty.

The book is skillfully constructed and structurally sound–a great technical achievement. Murray’s gift for dialog is on display throughout, especially in the alternately funny and earnest conversations between the 2nd year boys, and the Dickens-esque rants of the school’s acting principle, the “Dominator.” The work is also thematically strong–all the disparate elements are tied together in sometimes surprising ways, and the conclusions are all hard “earned,” as we used to say in writing workshop.

It may be this perfection that, in the end, leaves me cold. The whole thing was just too stylistically self-conscious to allow for the kind of absorption I, personally, look for as a reader. I just can’t handle this insipid hipster shit anymore. Even in a diluted Dubliner version.

Um…so, like, blog or what? On re-reading the Meg Cabot cannon instead of. Well. Everything.

I have been sick. I have addressed this issue by taking the world’s grossest vitamins and lying in bed reading eight (count them eight) Meg Cobot novels. That’s two whole series. Consecutively. I’m not even kidding.

What is it about illness that leaves you longing to read about 2000 pages of mindless crap about tall guys with great abs who fall inexplicably in love with obtuse and accident prone but otherwise average women, instead of, you know, Waverly (which is what I told people I was reading, when they asked–thank God (and my boyfriend) for the Kindle) or Skippy Dies, which I have seriously got to finish someday? Also, run-on sentences. The woman leaves us all babbling about guys asses in jeans and the complete unfairness of existence for, like, paragraphs on end. I’m even starting to write like Meg Cabot. Christ. How embarrassing.

But also, you know, if only. Because that woman is funny. And smart. And laughing all the way to the bank, probably. That hair cut in her author photo must have cost about $300, if you count in the highlights. And Harper isn’t exactly known for its air brushing.

Just for comparison, today, a bunch of third graders pointed out to me that I had eye liner up by my eyebrow (Although what they actually said say, “Ms Linds, do you have a black eye?”). At like, five in the afternoon. Which means I’d been going around like that all day. Guess I forgot the make-up remover last night. All of my neighbors and coworkers, and the people at Boulange, probably think I get beat. Plus, you know, the children.

The worst part is I can’t even legitimately argue that I’ve been using the excess brain power for writing, since my computer’s been out of commission for something like two weeks.

Funny story:

So, I’m sitting at the Church Street Cafe, typing away (on my novel no less), when all of a sudden a framed photo of an elderly Native American woman (I’m not even joking) jumps off the wall, right onto my table (and my shoulder) setting off a chain reaction that ends with a fresh 16 oz coffee flooding my key board.

That was a Tuesday. I spent the rest of the week waiting, hoping maybe some time to drain and the judicious application of a space heater might dry the thing out enough to, you know, at least flash me the screen of death or whatever. No such luck.

Those are some edits that are gone forever, let me tell you.

A week or so at the Apple Store seems to have resolved the issue, however. I’m pretty sure there’s nothing left that’s actually original to my computer at this point, except the power cord, since I had the screen replaced a while back due to a malfunction, and this most recent crisis resulted in a new case, keyboard, mouse, hard drive, optical drive, logic board, battery, and who knows what all.

I’m not saying I didn’t write all week. I’m just saying 20 notebook pages is like four and a half typed pages, which doesn’t exactly meet my goal…

But today was a good morning, writing-wise, at least. And there’s nothing to do, really, but move on, and hope my own characters don’t start to exhibit too strong a tendency toward angry make-out sessions and premature marriage proposals (i.e. an undue Cabot influence).

An ode to absent roommates. Six years. Six addresses. 23 roommates. The end of an erra.

credit: Liz Henry, Flickr
Roommate image

I reflect fondly on your boyfriend’s Grey Goose bottle bong, and the incredibly strong weed that sent me to my first ever publishing job still stoned, and thrilled to have my very own rolly office chair to play with.

Also, on the lime green living room with the hammock in it, the mouse that lived in the leather chair, the Katrina fire pit, and the owl with the glowing eyes. The way my bathtub used to vibrate from the base on your speakers, the same song over and over again as you wrote it. The bouncy boxing party when the cops came, that terrible girl who climbed in the window and covered my bed with mud, the way you told her that Native Americans invented the dimmer switch, and the way she believed you.

I miss drinking whiskey and torturing the downstairs neighbor. Painting the living room Gothic Rose pink and listening to that one Be Good Tanyas album over and over again. Eating ice cream and watching Bride and Prejudice. Buying bargain bin underwear in Oakland and dancing at the KitKat Club. Even the time you flipped the breaker box for April Fools.

I do not miss the way you itemized the dirty dishes and assigned pantry space based on percentage of total rent. The way you walked through my office (also known as the laundry room) to get outside, even when I asked you not to. The way you ignored my advice then blamed me when things went wrong. That time you locked me out because I said your dinner party was terrible, which it was.

I do not miss your drunk hipster friends passed out in my bedroom, or the vomit dried to a crust in the bottom of the tub when I came back from a long weekend in Santa Cruz. I don’t miss your loud friends playing cards at 3:00 AM on Tuesday, or the way you never cleaned, or the notes you left, complaining about fruit juice on the counter even though the sink was packed with your dirty dishes. I never understood how your boyfriend just moved in one day. I thought your bike was stupid, and I still do.

I hated coming home early the Friday before a holiday weekend to find you passed out on the sofa surrounded by nitrous canisters, and the way you let your cat destroy my sofa, then tried to make me get rid of it because it was so shabby. I hated you for your preachy crap about cars and street parking, your awful “films” and your insistence that I ask you about your day. I hated that restaurant you worked at. I don’t care what you say; it’s a cult. I hated never knowing what might have drugs in it–like those Altoids in the dish in the living room, or those brownies I ate for breakfast once, when I was running late for a PPR meeting, leaving me, once again, stoned in an office chair.

I hated your tantrums, and your made-up stories about your own heroic encounters with famous people. I hated your oily hair, and the way all your texts were always tagged ‘urgent.’ Your crazy cats, who continued the destruction of my sofa and always ran away when I entered a room. Your horror movie sex noises, your disgusting contact lenses, the way your hair stuck to the walls of the bathroom after you blow dried it. Also the hair in the shower drain and the animal hair all over the floors. The sad sound of your dog, crying and flinging herself at the back of your bedroom door. The cat box in the hall closet. The way you never paid PG&E on time, ever, and the self-righteous way you tried to dick me out of my deposit. The dumb shit you said, and the fact that you never ever cleaned anything, except sometimes, after a party.

Good bye, good and bad. It’s hard to feel honestly nostalgic about anything so recent and so nuts, but somehow, I think I’ll manage…

This Month in Recreational Reading: Deanna Raybourn and Francesca Lia Block

Although I do sometimes make fun Cover illustration for The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybournof Deanna Raybourn’s over-the-top Gothic stylings, I freely admit that I snapped up her latest, The Dark Inquiry, the day it was released and finished the thing in about a day and a half.

The mystery portion of the plot is not quite so dark as in previous installments–no elicit sex, no incest or mummy babies–no tigers even. The solution is, however, a bit more difficult to predict, largely because the investigation remains unfocused for much of the book, leaving readers uncertain of what to watch for, and because the author withholds a key piece of information about one of the characters until the heroine’s own moment of realization.

Raybourn has a gift for continuing the romantic storyline even after her hero and heroine have moved past the tortuous and drawn out will-they-won’t-they phase of the relationship–a very rare trait among writers if any genre. Her characters are married and ostensibly living happily ever after–but they still fight. And they fight about real things. Then they make up again, without necessarily resolving the underlying issues–almost like a real relationship. This underlying honest streak counterbalances the more ridiculous aspects of her work to some extent, making for surprisingly touching and serious moments in the midst of what is at heart escapist fiction for English majors.

Cover illustration for Necklace of Kisses by Francesca Lia BlockIs there an arty chick under 40 who doesn’t have a certain soft spot in her heart for Francesca Lia Block–especially the Weetzie Bat books?

The first new addition to the Dangerous Angels series since 1995, Necklace of Kisses picks up with Weetzie at 40. After 20 years together, Weetzie and Max have somehow managed to loose each other in a haze of work and depression. So, Weetzie packs a bag full of her favorite clothes and goes to stay a pink hotel where she meets a spectrum of eccentric artists and struggles to heal and to find herself again.

This follow-up focuses on the relationship between Weetzie and her Secret Agent Lover Man, but readers will be glad to see all their old favorites–Coyote, Dirk and Duck, Ping and Valentine, Raphael and Cherokee, Witch Baby and Angel Juan (my personal favorites), and even the evil Jane Mansfield-style witch Vixanne.

The story isn’t as compelling and original–or as cohesive–as many of Block’s other books. Indeed, echos of Weetzie and Max’s separation in Weetzie Bat (1989), the first book in the series, may give long-time readers a slight feeling of de ja vu. However, there is enough new material here to keep readers interested and engaged, and the conclusion of the novel is, as always, enormously satisfying. It’s a comfort to know that, even twenty years later, love and art still save the day.