Thursday, December 18, 2014

Thunderstruck (and a life update): "I knew something was ending, and I was grateful, and I missed it."

Before I get into the book we're all gathered here to discuss, I just want to say, HEY, HEY GUYS, GUYS, I WORK AT DISNEY PUBLISHING NOW, GUYS.

It's been a crazy first two weeks, and I'm going to bed tonight with visions of Sith Lords dancing in my head. I love my coworkers, piles of cookies and chocolate keep appearing on my desk, I literally read books about super heroes and Jedi between the hours of 9 and 5 every day, and I sometimes eat my lunch next to a life-sized sculpture of Sully from Monsters Inc. My life does not suck.

But I haven't quite figured out where everything else goes now that I can't stay up until 3 a.m. catching up on my reading or check in with some of you guys on gchat during the workday or hang out at home with my husband until noon or stop what I'm doing at any given moment of the day to rub my face all over my dogs' faces.

Change, even the good kind, is hard.

But the main things I want you to take away from this are that my job is awesome and I've eaten my weight in cookies today.

And now we can move on to the business at hand.

When it's been a while since you finished a particular book, but you loved it so much that you really can't let it pass through your life without comment, there's nothing for it but to bust out some quotes.
The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body's a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn't a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.
A round-jawed teenager sat on a leather settee with a handheld video game, frowning at the screen like a Roman emperor impatient with the finickiness of his lions.
Paris on paper always looked like a box of peanut brittle that had been dropped onto the ground, the Seine the unraveled ribbon that had held it together. 
The way Elizabeth McCracken describes everyday things is beyond me. It took me a solid month to get through this book of only nine stories, and it's because every sentence describes a new way of looking at something—sometimes the mundane and sometimes the incomprehensible. Each story demands to be lingered over; no skimming allowed.

Just really get in there and spend some time with it.

My favorite, "Juliet," falls almost exactly in the middle of the collection, and I think it's a good example of the cohesive tone of these stories—a quirky snapshot of everyday life that also addresses how humans cope with loss.

The story opens with the plight of a beleaguered bunny named Kaspar who lives in the children's room at a public library, and then it goes into the interactions of the librarians and patrons, and one patron in particular, Juliet. But it morphs into an examination of tragedy, and how the effects of sudden loss (of any loss, really) ripple out and out and out, reaching more people in more varied ways than we might imagine possible.

I first fell in love with McCracken's writing (and her, also...a little bit) when I read her afterword to the Signet Classic 150th anniversary edition of Bleak House. I read afterwords because I'm a completist, but they rarely make me want to go straight back to the beginning of the book for a reread. What I did do was go straight to Twitter to tell her how lovely her words were, and within minutes she replied to express her gratitude for my gratitude. We live in a magical time, friends.

Every day brings us a little closer to Internet tacos.
So what've we learned here today? You should read Elizabeth McCracken's writing at every opportunity. And you can still be hungry for tacos after eating many, many cookies.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Minireadathon: I'M AWAKE I'M AWAKE. WhadidImiss?

The Minithon's been in progress for about 2 hours now, and I've just stumbled out of my cave and toward the coffee. This is why Angelenos are notorious for being late to everything: Pacific Standard Time, that cruel minx.

I tentatively planned my reading for this thing, but it's mainly just whatever books I'm in the middle of right now.

  • I'm halfway through Elizabeth McCracken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories (short stories are miniature longer stories).
  • I'm also halfway through Middlemarch (not miniature in girth, no, but the people in the cover art are quite small) and determined to finish it by 2015, so help me.
  • I've been saving Horrorstor for this day because I have a feeling it will whiz along. And it's about an IKEA, basically, where all the furniture and the meat products come in pieces. Small pieces.
  • Sex Criminals Volume 1 is a comic and therefore inherently miniature. Let's hope nothing inside is miniature. *nudge-nudge*
  • Oh yeah, and I checked out a couple of Star Wars middle-grade chapter books yesterday because of reasons.
I have coffee in my cup. I have miniature quiches in the oven. READY, SET . . .

UPDATE: It's after 7 p.m. now, and I've just kind of . . . kept reading and eating. But I guess I can't keep counting all this toward my minithon achievements indefinitely. Otherwise I'll be 83 and still making a list of all the tiny foods I've accomplished, and then it will be a list with just PRUNES written over and over and over.

Despite starting the minireadathon 2 hours late and going shoe shopping in the middle of it, I did manage to put the following into my brain and/or face:
  • One heart-achingly beautiful short story from Thunderstruck (16 pages)
  • The entirety of Horrorstor, which fit the mini theme even more closely than I thought because so MANY things were in small pieces by the end (243 pages)
  • Three mugs of coffee
  • Seven tiny spinach quiches
  • Three teensy oranges
  • Innumerable cheddar Goldfish
  • Half an ahi tuna slider

But I've got all these snacks left over . . .

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Does no one else feel as though photos of David Mitchell are quietly judging them?

I was intimidated by David Mitchell for some reason. No, actually . . . I know why. It's because he has an expression of vague disapproval in his author photos* and the trailer for the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas makes my noodle hurt.

Oh NOW I get it.

Despite my crippling self-doubt, I have now read a David Mitchell book in its entirety, and aside from a few instances of flipping back 50 pages, rereading select portions, waiting for the light bulb to go on, and then proceeding, my concerns were unfounded.

I'm not saying it's a simple story structureIt's written from multiple character perspectives and intertwines story lines, which seems like it might be Mitchell's Thing. The transitions from one perspective to the next are clearly divided into six sections and marked with thematic illustrations, but even so the switch-over can be disorienting—like going to sleep and finding, upon waking, that you're in a different body. You might need a minute to get your bearings.

Oh please, you know this is the first thing you would do.

We start out with Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old in the English countryside who has a fight with her mother and decides to run away from home. Everything is pretty standard-teenage-girl-stuff with Holly. She's a lot like Johanna from Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, dealing with family life, falling for the wrong boy, and itching to grow up. But there's this subtle undercurrent of oddity, because Holly has, in the past, heard voices and experienced what you might call psychic premonitions.

That supernatural flavoring carries through all the sections, as we jump from Holly to a cast of other characters whose lives intersect with hers in unexpected ways. The book jacket uses the phrase "everyday grace and extraordinary wonder," and I guess the book jacket knows what it's talking about.

The prose isn't flowery or spare, but it's often quite good, like so:
Love's pure free joy when it works, but when it goes bad you pay for the good hours at loan-shark prices.
Minor quibbles: In one of the sections, people occasionally speak French, without any translation provided. That sort of thing makes us peasants feel left out, and we don't prefer it. Also, the foreshadowing can be heavy-handed at times—"I couldn't shake the feeling that I had just seen so-and-so for the last time" and that sort of thing. I suspect the editors recommended adding these signposts, maybe worrying that the average reader would trail too far behind without moderate hand-holding.


At any rate, this book successfully broke the David Mitchell ice for me, and now I can tackle that copy of Black Swan Green I've had for 3 years. Well, you know . . . eventually.

*After watching this video of Mitchell's presentation at BEA 2014, I see that he's charming and self-deprecating and not at all scary. He describes his own book as a "big, thumping beast of a thing" and briefly examines the subject of tickling.

Monday, November 3, 2014

California: The book, not the state...but also the state a little bit

Brainstorming about what we might do in the event of a global catastrophe seems to be a natural human compulsion. It's driven by nothing so practical as preparedness (I have the empty cupboards and junk drawer with a lone AA battery rolling around to prove it); I think it's more about our fascination with the breakdown of the civilized world. It's why Zombie Apocalypse story lines are most compelling when they focus more on how the survivors form new hierarchies and moral codes and less on the AAAAAAH ZOMBIES.

The husband and I discuss contingency plans as a matter of course.

Just the other day
Me: "That looks like the kind of place where people are lured to die."
Husband: "But . . . no windows . . . gated courtyard . . . high, flat roof. Excellent shelter for the Zombie Apocalypse."

If you don't mind the very real possibility of murder by puppets and/or Bob

In California, civilization is knocked off course by a series of natural disasters, the severe effects of climate change that all those scientists have been warning us about. Exclusive gated compounds called Communities pop up for the few who can afford the extravagant membership rates. Outside the Communities, everything looks a lot more dystopian. This intensified contrast between the haves and have-nots brings out political radicals who seek to dismantle society even further so that everyone will be on the same level.

Young married couple Cal and Frida decide to leave disintegrating and increasingly dangerous Los Angeles and head for the woods, and that's where we find them at the start of the book. Juuuust the two of them. In the woods.
The finality of their situation sat on her chest like a brick and pushed. No one was looking. Her audience was sucked away, the ones keeping her safe with their concern, keeping her okay, keeping her the same as before, and she was spit out as if from a Wizard of Oz tornado.
But then Frida discovers that she's pregnant, and this whole cabin-in-the-woods, solitary existence doesn't seem like the best option anymore. As events unfold, Frida and Cal get alternating chapters to show us their side of things, which makes the book a lot about how this new reality changes them and leads them to do things that strain their bond as a couple.

Just for example

It's "eminently readable" for all the reasons Alice lists in her review (subtle plug for my homegirl, Reading Rambo), but if you happen to live in Los Angeles, you also get the added joy of seeing well-known locales from actual life through a grimy post-apocalyptic filter.
Toni lived on the second floor of a ramshackle duplex that overlooked Echo Park's now-drained lake. The lake's old bridge was gone, maybe burned for firewood, as were the pedal boats. Frida had been born too late to see the lotus flowers, which had once floated across the water's surface.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Ruby: Here's some information. Do with it what you will.

I'm going to tell you, very calmly, why I couldn't love this book and in fact sort of disliked it, but first here's Emily's mini-review because she loved it and I love her.

First of all, the language is rich and dense (similes and metaphors and descriptors, galore...sometimes too many?), and the characters are complex. And the message—which centers on a woman breaking the cycle of abuse and taking back control of her soul (literally)—is deep and poignant and relevant. I get why people are comparing Cynthia Bond to Toni Morrison. I do.

But I hated my life while I was reading this book.

I am far from being the sort of person who demands that books and movies make me feel warm and safe. No Country for Old Men is one of my favorites of recent memory. I'll watch a Lars von Trier movie to unwind after a long day at work. I enjoy existential dread!

But this seemed gratuitous. It felt like Bond was forcing me to wallow in the most vile pits of mortal experience, and every time I thought maybe it was time to get out and towel off, she was like, "NOPE. You don't have enough muck in your soul crevices."

Soul muck is my Kryptonite.

All we really know at the beginning is that Ruby is in her 40s and is the "local crazy" in a small Texas town. Ephram is a man who knew Ruby and loved her from afar when they were children. She had moved to New York as a young woman but came back I think 15 years prior to when the book picks up. And in that time, something about being back in that town made her lose her mind 100% all the way.
They had all watched, steadily, as she slipped into madness. Concern, mingled with a secret satisfaction, melted into the creases of their bodies like Vaseline.
As the story unfolds in the present day, we learn through current events and flashbacks what set Ruby on the path to madness, how her tortured history inexplicably relates to Ephram's seemingly uneventful one, and the heroic effort that will be required to bring her out of the pit. And, oh right, there are supernatural doings throughout.

Damn. Even now, it sounds so good. Because it is. It would be. It should be. So why isn't it?

As near as I can figure, the book's biggest problem is that it's grossly out of balance. You have to slog through 99 miles of evil before you reach 1 mile of world-weary sadness shot through with glimmers of hope for future redemption. One chapter in particular, toward the middle of the book, was so emotionally oppressive that I was nauseated.

But the more I think about it, the more I think maybe that imbalance was intentional.

Bond works with homeless and at-risk youth in Los Angeles, so this is probably a story she's seen play out in real lives. She may have taken in all the hurt and trauma of all the kids she's ever counseled and poured it into Ruby. This could be her way of letting victims of abuse know that she sees them, that they're not alone—that if all they find when they look back is darkness, they should take one step forward. And then one step more.

OK, this is what I'll say about Ruby: I will never claim that anyone should read this book. People (especially women) who have suffered abuse are more likely to be triggered by the events of Ruby's life than encouraged by them. People who haven't suffered abuse might feel as though they have by the end of the story. It's your choice.

I support you if this is your decision.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

I smell faintly and forever of sour milk

Two weeks ago today, the dogs and I were taking our regular 3 p.m. stroll when we were accosted by a tiny street thug.

At claw point

I heard plaintive mewling along the fence that rings the industrial complex where I rent my office; so I peered under and he was just there, sprawled face-down in a gap between the fence and a row of shipping containers. I heard a startled rustling farther down the sidewalk, and I thought certainly that was his mother. This was my justification for doing what I now believe to have been a shameful thing, which was go back to my life where I was a person with two dogs and no kitten.

At the same time the next day, again with the strolling and again with the mewling, but a little more assertive this time. I crouched in the weeds and looked under the fence, and he was in the exact same spot and visibly upset about it. I squeezed behind the shipping containers and scooped him up, and everything has been basically awful since then.

Look at this asshole.

He was only a week old when I found him, eyes firmly shut and umbilical cord attached. Now he's the ripe old age of 3 weeks, but he still has to be on a heating pad because he can't regulate his body temperature, and he needs his butt rubbed with a moist towelette to help him pee and poo.

And he has to be bottle-fed kitten milk replacement every 2 to 4 hours, which he gets HELLA belligerent about because he keeps forgetting how the milk travels from the bottle to his mouth. He spends at least 10 minutes every time screaming and clawing at my hand and the bottle and his face before a drop hits his tongue and he furiously suckles himself into a transcendent milk stupor. Until the next time he's hungry (which is every moment he's awake even if I just fed him but he fell asleep for a minute and then a dog barked and woke him up and he's preeeetty sure he should eat again as long as we're all here).

You are CLEARLY full, sir.


But his eyes are open now, and they seem to be getting bigger and brighter every day. And he purrs vigorously when you cradle him against your heart. And he climbs up your shirt so he can put his front paws on your face and gently gum your lip. And he leans toward Gizmo so she can lick the milk off his face. And he wobbles along the floor with his tail straight up in the air while Paco hesitantly follows behind, trying to figure out what manner of beast this is and whether it has designs on his evening biscuit.

So yeah . . . when can we find a home for this jerk and reclaim our lives?

UPDATED TO ADD: The very next day after I posted this, the rescue said they had a lactating female and there was room for this little outlaw to sidle up to the bar for a libation. So, alas, he is gone from my life, on to bigger and better things. But whenever the day's chaos abates, when calm settles over the house, in that still, small moment, I can hear . . . Meow? DAMMIT WOMAN I SAID MEOW.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Landline: Take in combination with Greg Laswell song of the same name. Writer's orders.

It’s no secret around these parts that I’m a fan of this Rainbow lady. Thanks to my continued association with people who have their fingers on the pulse of literature (pretty sure this all started with Raych, but then of course it was Alice who enthusiasm-ed Rainbow into being our friend), I got in on the ground floor with Attachments and have since happily ridden the elevator up, first to Eleanor & Park and then to Fangirl.

But the floor I arrived at when I pressed the button marked Landline was something altogether different from the others, because instead of being a place full of beanbag chairs where I could drink a sugary coffee beverage and watch young people lovingly tousle each other's hair, there was a full bar and arm chairs with permanent dips for my bum. For me, it was present (with a hint of future) tense.

Help yourself to a whiskey.

Georgie and Neal have been married for about 15 years and have two young daughters and a home in Los Angeles. They’ve grown complacent in their relationship, finding endless distractions in their girls and in Georgie’s work as a sitcom writer. But all the things they haven’t been saying to each other have been piling up, as they do, the distance yawning imperceptibly wider, as it does, and when Georgie chooses to pursue an important career opportunity rather than visit Neal’s family for Christmas, the distance becomes literal. Neal takes the girls and goes to Omaha anyway, leaving Georgie at first in denial that anything is wrong and then completely uncertain about where their relationship stands.

And then the story takes a turn for the fantastical. When Georgie calls Neal from the landline in her childhood home, she discovers that she can talk to the Neal of 15 years ago, before they decided to get married. As Present Georgie talks more and more to Past Neal, she starts to wonder whether this is her chance to change history . . . and if she even wants to.


This story hit me pretty hard in a personal way. Maybe it's because I'm a lot like Georgiedomestically challenged, career-driven, inclined to pick the most saturated color on the paint sample card. Maybe it's because my husband is a lot like Neala better cook than he has any right to be, quiet with his emotions, big with his romantic gestures. I also have a mother who's obsessed with her pug, and we also live in Silver Lake (technically Echo Park, but that's just semantics and roughly 15% less hipsters).

Or maybe it's because he was literally digging himself into a hole while I was reading the first half of the book.

No but really.

We're coming up on 4 years of marriage, which is exactly the number of years we were together before the wedding. But marriage, guys . . . it's this whole other THING. And, unsurprisingly, Rainbow captures that flawlessly:
You don't know what it really means to crawl into someone else's life and stay there. You can't see all the ways you're going to get tangled, how you're going to bond skin to skin. How the idea of separating will feel in five years, in ten—in fifteen. When Georgie thought about divorce now, she imagined lying side by side with Neal on two operating tables while a team of doctors tried to unthread their vascular systems.
It's not all introspection and married-people angst. The secondary players in Georgie's life (her mom, stepdad, sister, close friend and writing partner, daughters, and more) don't seem to have any idea that they're secondary, because Rainbow doesn't ever treat them that way. And of course there's playful banter. Of course there is.
"She reclaimed her virginity?"
 "Leave it, Georgie. She can do whatever she wants with her virginity."
"Right," Georgie said, nodding her head. "Right . . . It doesn't sound like such a bad idea, actually. Maybe I'll reclaim mine before you come back. In the name of Queen Elizabeth."
Subliminal messages in the Harry Potter books, obvs.