Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

In the Woods.

It was such a pleasure to read this book. Written for people with longer attention spans, In the Woods starts off with powerful, frightening imagery - a terrified little boy is found in the woods near his home, clinging to a tree, his two best friends missing, his shoes filled with someone else's blood - then burns along slowly, building up to yet another shocking image at the end.

The meat of the story is solid, methodical police work. One of my former employees was married to a police officer. I asked her if he was able to watch police shows. My sister, an emergency room nurse, doesn't watch Grey's Anatomy or ER, because she doesn't want to be reminded of work when she isn't there. My employee said no, he doesn't, but mostly it's because in TV land, the police are "the luckiest cops in the whole wide world."

In Tana French's debut novel, this is not the case.

After the beginning, when we are introduced to that frightened little boy, we jump twenty years into the future. That little boy has grown up to be Rob Ryan, a police detective. Due to the trauma, Ryan has no memory of the incident, and barely remembers his life before it. When a little girl is found murdered on the same spot where he was found and his two schoolmates mysteriously disappeared, he and his partner Cassie think he'll be able to go home again to Knocknaree, a picturesque little town a few miles from Dublin, and work the case.

Of course, as Thomas Wolfe told us, you can't go home again. Most of the woods has been turned into an archeological site, and the entire woods, including the dig, are slated to be razed and replaced with a major highway. Rob, Cassie, and fellow detective Sam carefully compile various leads - the murdered little girl is the daughter of the man leading a protest against the highway's development: was it political? The family of the girl is hiding something very weird: was there abuse in the home? There was a mysterious, twenty-year old patch of blood found on the rock that served as a murder weapon, and an elastic ponytail holder that belonged to Rob's missing schoolmate was found near the crime scene: are the crimes related?

Rob, Cassie, and Sam carefully investigate each lead and all the directions the leads take them. Unlike the detectives on Law & Order, they become frustrated by leads that peter out, information they are unable to obtain, and false clues sprinkled throughout the case. Adding to this is the stress Rob has put on himself by surrounding himself with his own trauma, and his personality slowly begins to disintegrate, leaving Cassie and Sam to cover for him. And, as it turns out, Cassie and Sam have traumas of their own that the case has dredged up and all three come to a fork in the road: Do they let their past destroy them, or make them stronger?

In the Woods is so carefully detailed that I would have to put the book down as soon as I felt my attention wander. The book demands you bring your A game, because the scraps of clues presented in the beginning tie together in the end, and if you aren't paying attention, you'll miss it. In this regard, French is able to make the reader feel like a real detective, demanding the same level of commitment and concentration from the reader that a detective must give to an increasingly complicated case.

As the pieces begin adding up, a frightening picture begins to emerge, and French builds the tension up to its terrible conclusion. And just like life, several ends remain untied, and what is lost is as much as what is gained.

Rob Ryan is a character that is so well-developed it's almost impossible to believe he isn't real. Lonely and disconnected in a way that often seems callous, it becomes clear that the essential part of Ryan never left the woods. His refusal to acknowledge this simple truth causes him to detach from the world, watching it pass him by as he still clings to the tree, unable to run, unable to cry for help. The child he used to be has been deeply buried inside Ryan, along with much of his memory and his soul. He lives with an ex-girlfriend in a cordial, but strained relationship. Although he views her with contempt, he makes no effort to improve his living situation. He has no friends, no girlfriend, and parents he rarely speaks to, but makes no effort to alleviate his loneliness. Cassie, his partner, is his whole world, and when the stress of the case begins to take its toll on him, he reacts by picking away at his one real, solid anchor, Cassie's loyalty, instead of reaching for the love he is sure to receive.

His partner, Cassie, is glorious. A brilliant detective often hamstrung by the relentless sexism in her department, Cassie's strength and resilience seems bottomless. Her detective work is flawless, and, unlike Ryan, she draws strength from her mistakes and uses her awful, secret past to her advantage later in life. She is the girl everyone wants to be, and every moment spent with Cassie shines.

In the Woods is an impressive debut novel. It traps you in its world and keeps you there for several days after the last page is read, musing over what was, and what might have been. And that is a book of the very best kind.

In the Woods
by Tana French
May 2008 by Penguin
Paperback, 464pp
ISBN: 0-14311-349-6

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Thursday, October 16, 2008


As you may know, I have been consistently running about three months behind on putting up reviews for about two years. What you may not know, however, is that now I am four months behind. I rationalize this by telling myself that I will be the second wind, either encouraging you to go out and buy a book you may have missed when it first came out, or making you glad you didn't buy it when everyone else had their reviews out the first week of its release.

Unfortunately, with some books this excuse doesn't work as well as I would like it to. Some books like Sherri Rifkin's Lovehampton. Lovehampton is a book written to be read at the beach. Even more specifically, it is a book written to be read at the beach during the summer of 2008. Even more specifically, it is a book written to be read by upper middle class women in their late twenties-early thirties at the beach during the summer of 2008.

Happy Halloween, everyone! Here's your summer beach read review!

LoveHampton is yet another chick lit book about a woman, Tori Miller, who is supposed to represent you, the late-twenties/early thirties upper middle class white female reader, who can totally relate to Tori's struggle against...whatever it is she's struggling against. Tori is depressed from being dumped by Peter, who she thought was The One (And by one, I do not mean Barack Obama, but Mr. Right. Who you may also think is Barack Obama, but I can't help you. Please try to think of something other than the election. It's summer!) She is pulled back from the ledge by her friends Alice, Jerry, and Jimmy, who rope her into getting a reality-show makeover and shuttle her off to a summer in the Hamptons, where she will be spending the summer with a handful of total strangers.

All the stock characters are represented: Leah, the Mean Girl/Queen Bee who is in charge of the house and keeps referring to Tori by the wrong name, a British man who I keep wanting to call "Nigel" who is dry and reserved and has a stiff upper lip and generally keeps going all English on your ass, Cassie, the beauty editor from Elle who is cooler than you but totally nice, Stacy, the younger bubbly one who is in love with Michael, the loud New Yorker, and Andrew who is The! One!

But Tori doesn't realize at first that Andrew is The! One! because he seems like such a player. But it's only to disguise his broken heart, and so she dates this very rich man, George, instead, but he's a cad, and so on and so on, and I know you can probably write this book yourselves by now.

The only really good news I can report is that we seem to be winning the war against the legs-and-feet covers that we've been plagued with for so long. See the cover? The nice attractive beach and brightly colored beach towels draped over the driftwood fence? Much, much better. Well, done, cover artist Ralph Fowler.

Even though I found the book somewhat annoying - frequent references are made to the characters' "crackberries" - I still feel that I should have rolled this review out at the beginning of the summer. There are a million and one pop culture references in the book that became dated 3 months ago, so the shelf life here is pretty short.

Then I remembered: the Summer of 2008 is just starting in Australia and New Zealand. I'm not too late! I'm right on time! Fly! Fly, Aussies and Kiwis! Buy a copy now! Summer of '08 has just begun!


by Sherri Rifkin
May, 2008 by St. Martin's Griffin
310pp, Paperback
ISBN: 0-31238021-6

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Host.

That's how we realized you were here, you know, she said, thinking of the sickening news headlines again. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand.

"Argh!" Jared and Jamie groaned together.

Jared lounges on the leather sofa and Jamie sprawls on the carpet in front of him. They're watching a basketball game on the big-screen TV. The parasites who live in this house are at work, and we've already filled the jeep with all it can hold. We have hours to rest before we need to disappear again.

On the TV, two players are disagreeing politely on the sideline. The cameraman is close; we can hear what they are saying.

"I believe I was the last one to touch it - it's your ball."

"I'm not sure about that. I wouldn't want to take any unfair advantage. We'd better have the refs review the tape."

The players shake hands, pat each other's shoulders.

"This is ridiculous," Jared grumbles.

What if the Earth's population was wiped out and replaced by the residents of Pleasantville?

Global genocide is devastating; global genocide at the hands of Donny and Marie is humiliating.

Although that's not precisely the premise of Stephenie Meyer's The Host, it's the question that keeps coming to mind throughout the gigantic novel.

Melanie Stryder, one of the remaining "wild humans," is in Chicago, searching for her cousin Sharon, who she believes has not yet been overtaken by the body snatchers. She is spotted by the Seekers, the parasite's version of the Police, in an abandoned building in Chicago, and throws herself down an elevator shaft rather than be captured and have her body used to house an alien life form. Unsuccessful, she is revived by the alien doctors, who cut a slit into her neck and insert The Wanderer, a new arrival to Earth.

However, Melanie's soul refuses to leave the body, and, much to Wanderer's dismay, makes her rage fill the spaces not inhabited by the alien.

An uneasy truce between the two forms, and The Wanderer comes to realize the horror of what her people are doing, and Melanie in turn begins to appreciate the kindness of the alien race, and that they are colonizing not out of hate, but because of what they are. The Wanderer abandons society, walking into the desert in search of Melanie's little brother Jamie, and her boyfriend Jared, not to turn them over to the seekers, but to help the resistance.

Her decision is made, in part, by the constant harassment of a particularly obnoxious female Seeker, who suspects something is not quite right with the Wanderer, but does not know that Melanie is still inside the body. The Seeker has an unusually enthusiastic taste for hunting down and killing unpossessed humans, a trait which shocks Melanie and the Wanderer both, drawing them together in a the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of way.

This is when the book really began to fly for me, in no small part because this tense interaction between the three of them passes the Mo Movie Measure in a way I haven't experienced since, well, since the last time I read a Dykes to Watch Out for cartoon.

The book goes on forever with women engaging in dialogue that is almost always written to be spoken by men. It is teh awesome. It's like having Angela Basset replacing Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, grumbling, "I'm too old for this shit," while reaching for her gun. And, I don't know, Ellen Degeneres can pop up beside her, imitating the Three Stooges or something.

But I digress.

Stephenie Meyer seems to have a large following for her young adult Vampire novels. The Host is her first adult novel, and she really knows how to tell a story. I read the 624 page book in two days, something I haven't been able to do in a long time. She's been playing in the kid leagues for quite awhile it seems, because the sex is non-existent, and the violence and swearing are minimal. A precocious twelve-year-old would find the novel enjoyable and not particularly challenging. That's not meant to be insulting, J.K. Rowling's books weren't read just by kids.

By reversing the roles, with the body snatcher being the protagonist and the wild humans the dangerous savages, Meyer employs one of my favorite ways of story-telling, the unreliable narrator.

The Wanderer, or Wanda, as she comes to be called, is in turns horrified and disgusted by the violence and rage she sees in humans.

There was a stack of newspapers inside [the cupboard], covered with dust. I pulled one out, curious shaking the dirt to the floor, and read the date.

From human times, I noted. Not that I needed a date to tell me that.

"Man Burns Three-Year-Old Daughter to Death," the headline screamed at me, accompanied by a picture of an angelic blond child. This wasn't the front page. The horror detailed here was not so hideous as to rate priority coverage. Beneath this was the face of a man wanted for the murders of his wife and two children two years before the print date; the story was about a possible sighting of the man in Mexico. Two people killed and three injured in a drunk--driving accident. A fraud and murder investigation into the alleged suicide of a prominent local banker. A suppressed confession setting an admitted child molester free. House pets found slaughtered in a trash bin.

I cringed, shoving the paper away from me, back into the dark cupboard.

Those were the exceptions, not the norm, Melanie thought quietly, trying to keep the fresh horror of my reaction from seeping into her memories of those years and recoloring them.

Can you see how we thought we might be able to do better, though? How we could have supposed that maybe you didn't deserve all the excellent things of this world?

Wanda, convinced of her people's goodness and the evil nature of human beings, does not realize that the honest, kind worlds her race creates are not possible without the wholesale slaughter of human beings, that, even worse, human beings are created for the sole purpose of being harvested to make more Souls, as the parasites call themselves. She can't understand why the humans are all so angry.

I just love that.

As the novel progresses, Wanda and Melanie become a team, and navigate the narrow line they walk between human and Soul, sharing an aching love for Jared, who is devastated by Melanie's alien possession and has become Wanda's enemy as a result, and their unconditional love for Melanie's little brother Jamie.

As the two of them marched along towards the book's somewhat satisfying conclusion - as satisfying as it can be when the human race is wiped out - I found myself staying up later and later to finish it.

It was worth every minute of lost sleep.


The Host
by Stephenie Meyer
May, 2008 by Little, Brown
Hardcover 624pp
ISBN: 978-0316068048

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Lazarus Project.

"The time and place are the only things I am certain of: March 2, 1908, Chicago. Beyond that is the haze of history and pain, and now I plunge."

From that precise date The Lazarus Project begins, immediately splitting into a dual storyline where, in the first, fact is bound by fiction, and in the second, fiction is bound by fact.

Chicagoan Aleksandar Hemon has somehow created a post-modernist historical meta-novel. I'm not exactly sure that's even possible, but I read the damn thing, and he did it, so there you go.

The story opens with the true story of Lazarus Averbuch, a Jewish Russian immigrant gunned down in 1908 by Chicago's chief of police, Chief Shippy, who tries to justify the murder by fabricating a history of anarchy and terrorism, fueled by anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant paranoia. Just look at young Lazarus, Shippy and the papers say, obviously he was a murderous anarchist.

Moving forward to 2008, Vladimir Brik, a Chicago writer, becomes interested in the ancient crime and is moved to write a fictionalized account. After securing a research grant, Brik, a Sarajevo native, takes off with his childhood friend Rora to eastern Europe. Brik and Rora, now a war photographer, make the trek from the Ukraine to Sarajevo, loosely researching the life of young Lazarus Averbuch and his older sister, Olga.

The novel moves back and forth between story lines, touchingly filling in the gaps surrounding Lazarus and Olga, who survived the pogroms in Russia, only to escape to even greater tragedy in the United States. In an interview Hemon gave to Powell's, he claimed to have found writing from a woman's point of view to be challenging. In his cringe-inducing description of Olga's treatment by the police and the press in the aftermath of the murder, he more than adequately met that challenge. Hemon re-creates the scene where Olga is taken to the morgue to identify the body of her brother. No one has bothered to tell her he is dead; her shock and grief are to be their entertainment for the duration of the novel:

Men are gathered around the chair where Lazarus sits, and she is relieved to see he is alive. She sighs and grips Fitzpatrick's forearm. But one of the men is holding Lazarus's head; her brother's eyes are closed, his face ashen; her heart stops, frozen. Fitzgerald urges her on. Fitzpatrick says, as if delivering a punch line: "Happy to see him? Give him a kiss.." The crowd titters, transfixed by Olga steeping toward Lazarus, as if she were mounted on cothurni: a short, reluctant step back, then two awkward steps forward to touch his lifeless cheek, whereupon she collapses, unconscious. The crowd gasps. The Fitzes carry her to the side door opening into the alley, where they unbutton her dress and allow her to breathe the cold air. The detectives smoke, while Miller monitors Olga's feelings, as well as her chest. "That must've been a big surprise for you, girlie," Fitzpatrick says. They hear the booms of the photographer's flash inside.

Lazarus has been dehumanized as a young Jewish man, but Olga has been dehumanized twice, once as a Jew and again as a woman. The leering commentary, lifted from old Tribune articles about the murder, has been inserted into the novel, almost as if it had to be, or we would never believe such taunting cruelty would be possible.

As for the morgue scene itself, that was real, too. Before each chapter is a photo of Chicago in 1908 or Eastern Europe in 2008, and the death photo of Averbuch is there.

In the other story, Brik and Rora bumble around Eastern Europe, spending the grant money on terrifying cab rides and wretched hotels that double as brothels. Brik, despite his detached, ironic tone, is somewhat of a naïf, constantly surprised by the often squalid conditions of human life but trying very hard not to be. Rora is the true cynic, photographing everything but impressed by nothing. Throughout the journey he tells a third tale of his life as a war photographer in Sarajevo during the genocide, and his involvement with a psychopathic war criminal named Rambo, who, he convinces Brik, will kill him if he is spotted back in Bosnia. Rora spins this tale, interspersed with shaggy dog jokes, throughout the journey, telling Brik everything and nothing all at once, while Brik, who is much quieter, gives himself away to everyone he meets.

As the centuries-apart stories progress, the parallels of genocide, racism, immigration, and dispossession bind the tales to each other, and characters from one story begin to bleed into another. Even the tale of Rora and Brik wavers between fact and fiction. Hemon and a photographer friend made the same journey as Rora and Brik while researching the novel, and the photographs taken by Rora that dot the novel were taken by Velibor Božović, Hemon's travelling companion.

Simultaneously aloof and compelling, true and fictitious, The Lazarus Project is an ambitious novel, inviting the reader to examine the many angles of love and cruelty, and the meaning of home.


The Lazarus Project
by Aleksandar Hemon
May, 2008 by Riverhead
Hardcover, 304pp
ISBN: 978-1594489884

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Monday, October 06, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates.

I’d never heard of Sarah Vowell until about 4 years ago, when someone wrote me and told me my writing style and hers were similar. I thought Sarah Vowell was an 18th-century actress, so I was a little confused, but recognized it as a compliment, so I thanked her, then Googled “Sarah Vowell” to make sure. It turns out I was confusing her with Sarah Siddons, the 18th century Meryl Streep of Drury Lane. After listening to Vowell read some of her essays on NPR, I was properly schooled, but had to admit two things: 1.) I want her job, and 2.) she deserves it because she’s a far better writer than I am.

Vowell’s books are history books, told in a personable, irreverent style that makes history seem like it happened yesterday, like somebody telling you something they read on Perez. Old fights turn into juicy gossip, old injustices sting and cry out for retribution. Her research takes her to a myriad places, and it seems like an endless road trip, pulling over by the side of the road to soak in every mossy historical plaque or crumbling statue.

But how much fun it must be to toodle around the country, blowing up stuff with her dad in Montana or visiting Abraham Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois or, more recently, holing up in a library in Boston, reading a Puritan’s ancient diary. Okay, maybe fun for just a few, but to me it sounds like a dream job.

The latest results of Vowell's awesome job, The Wordy Shipmates, is an in-depth look at the laugh-a-minute world of the Puritans.

“God, why?” people would groan when she was researching the book. “Why Puritans?”

At which point, depending on my mood, I would either mumble something about my fondness for sermons as literature or mention taking my nephew to the Mayflower replica waterslide in a hotel pool in Plymouth. I would never answer with the honest truth. Namely, that in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of [Massachusetts’s first governor John] Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.

Vowell is referring to Winthrop’s essay, “A Model of Christian Charity.” In it, Winthrop delivers the line that has become a favorite of politicians nationwide, comparing New England to a “shining city on a hill.” Revived by Ronald Reagan, this metaphor has stuck with Americans. We strongly identify with being the gatekeepers of that shining city, where the rest of the world wants to live.

I don’t know whether or not the Puritans thought everybody was eager to dress in black and slap silver buckles on their shoes, but they sure thought that’s what everybody should want.

This attitude, that American’s are God’s own little rays of sunshine, was conceived by John Cotton and hammered into our national consciousness by John Winthrop. The anti-sex prude reputation the Puritans have is not actually the reputation they deserve. Instead, it’s the far more modest idea that we are God’s favorite that is the point of view that continues on to this day.

Vowell, while spinning out an amazingly detailed history of Puritan leaders such as Cotton, Winthrop, and rabble-rouser and Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, also paints an intricate painting of Puritan daily life, while constantly drawing parallels to modern times.

Referring to our view of ourselves as God’s chosen, Vowell writes, “The most ironic and entertaining example of that mindset is the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s official seal. The seal, which the Wintrhop fleet brought with them from England, pictures an Indian in a loincloth holding a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. Words are coming out of his mouth. The Indian says, ‘Come over and help us.’ That is really what it says.”

Want to do something funny? Imagine instead of an Indian asking for help, it’s an Iraqi. Hilarious!

The Wordy Shipmates, moreso than her previous books, rambles on a little bit. Themes and chronology overlap, and it sometimes becomes difficult to tell which Puritan did what. There are theological differences between them, so nitpicky it’s unbelievable, yet, as Vowell points out, no more nitpicky than the differences between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and look at how well they’re getting along!

Once the Puritan lifestyle is closely examined – and it doesn’t get much closer than this, folks – you can see there’s not much truth in any of the Puritan stereotypes. For example, there’s a lot less witch-burning than one would think. Aside from the grisly interactions with the Indians (Roger Williams being the sole exception to this, being of the mindset to respect them rather than “help” them), the Puritans fought mainly by banishment from the community, or, if things got really exciting, a pamphlet war would break out.

If this had been a work of fiction, I may have demanded less pamphlets, more toasted witches.

As it is, I’ll just breathe a sigh of relief that there are no pamphlet wars today. That would get in the way of all that blog-feuding.

p.s. to Sarah Vowell: 1 firkin = 9 gallons


The Wordy Shipmates
by Sarah Vowell
October, 2008 by Riverhead
Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN: 978-1594489990

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