Monday, June 30, 2014

Ablutions: A choose-your-own-adventure story for horrible people

Since reading The Sisters Brothers and having a small portion of it permanently stamped on one of my appendages, I’ve been keeping Patrick deWitt’s first (and only other) book, Ablutions, in my peripheral vision. I knew I should read it, but I was worried deWitt would retroactively let me down . . . or something equally irrational and reeking of reader's entitlement.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t a little disappointed by this book, but my love for deWitt’s words and the way he arranges them in impactful, no-frills sentences remains unchanged. If anything, he’s proven that he is, unequivocally, one of my favorite writers. Otherwise, I could never forgive him for writing an entire novel in SECOND-PERSON PRESENT TENSE.

The protagonist is you, and you are an aging, directionless man who works as a barback in a Hollywood dive. You drink a lot of free whiskey on the job and eat aspirins like candy. Your liver is in dire straits, and you drive home drunk almost nightly. You think you’re hiding all this self-destructive behavior from your wife because you’re a trained silent vomiter, but all you're really doing is deluding yourself while she steadily loses faith in you. In the mundane activities of your daily life, you provide a crushingly accurate narrative of addiction—highs and lows that quickly become mostly lows; inconsequential, ludicrous observations punctuated by occasional nuggets of transcendental truth.
Looking up at the sky you decide you will ride your bicycle to and from work every night. In a month's time you will be in excellent physical shape and your eyes will glow golden with all they have seen.
But a short while and several drinks later, your ambitions have changed somewhat.
There is a mantle of dust covering everything in your room and a group of holes pockmark the wall above the headboard of the bed; seven holes, each punched with a small blunt tool from the inside out. You fill these with tissue paper, worrying as you work that you will find an evil eye hovering in the darkness. Standing back to look at your handiwork you say to the wall, “Wall, I have made you ridiculous.”
The kernels of what deWitt would achieve with his second book are present and accounted for here, but they’re harder to swallow in this form. Basically, if The Sisters Brothers was deWitt doing Cormac McCarthy or Charles Portis, Ablutions is deWitt doing Charles Bukowski or Hunter S. Thompson. And that means spending a lot of time with an unlikable protagonist who makes terrible choices.

Well, mostly terrible choices.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Mind of Winter: It makes Siberia seem just as unpleasant as Siberia always seems

Some books we read because they’re gorgeously written, and some books we read because there’s a reveal at the end and we are SUCKERS for a reveal.

I don't care as long as it's used effectively.
(Also, some books we read because books i done read reviewed them hilariously.)

Holly and her husband, Eric, accidentally sleep in on Christmas Day. Eric has to rush right out the door because he’s late to fetch his parents from the airport, and Holly lingers in bed to mull the heck out of some foreboding thoughts before shuffling to the kitchen to start Christmas dinner for the family and friends due to arrive in a few hours.

But then the snow starts falling, and it keeps falling and falling some more until it’s basically a blizzard and there’s no chance of anyone venturing onto the roads . . . which leaves Holly home alone with their adopted teenage daughter, Tatiana. Why is this creepy? This shouldn’t be creepy. Just a nice lady and her sweet teenage daughter from a secluded orphanage in Siberia.

But it’s totally creepy. Because Holly wakes up that morning thinking that something followed them home from Russia. And she thinks that many times.

But important, probably?

So Holly is home on this perfectly benign, snowy Christmas Day with her Russian angel of a daughter who we are told is the prettiest and the best daughter who ever daughtered. But then Tatiana starts acting eerily out of character, according to the version of her character Holly's been giving us all along (a little heavy-handedly, Holly, don’t you think?), and the eeriness escalates into suspense, and you keep looking at the book cover and wishing it wouldn’t look back at you like that, and the next thing you know it's finished and you’re feeling really unsettled on a sunny afternoon.

So it accomplishes what it sets out to do, I think, but it’s no masterpiece of the written word. I got hung up on page 7 for a while because I was trying to think of any possible way this sentence wasn’t just the worst sentence:
Write down the way some shadow face is finally peering around a corner on this Christmas morning (they’d slept so late) and shown itself.

But once the story got rolling, I was along for the slightly bumpy ride.

After I read the last page, I spent some time flipping back to reread choice parts and see how they supported the conclusion. This, for me, is the most satisfying aspect of a book with a big reveal, because you’ve been collecting all these puzzle pieces along the way and now you get to step back and see how they fit together. But I came up with some extra pieces this time. The culprit could be sloppy writing, or it could be the same part of my brain that gets confused by a James Bond movie. That mystery remains unsolved . . . for now.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Lady Audley’s Secret Readalong THE END: Subtly undermining the Victorian myth that female self-assertion is a form of insanity since 1987

Lady Audley has confessed herself to be . . . A MADWOMAN.

Not buying it.

Here’s what I think is the deal with Helen/Lucy. She grew up with the constant reminder that her mother was mad and that madness is hereditary; so she always expected to be suddenly struck with the manifestation of this latent genetic curse.

Perhaps because she had this horrible shadow always looming, she lived her life selfishly. She did some things because they served her interests and didn’t do other things because they didn’t, but there was nothing criminal about her selfishness—until that moment when she stood by the well and her dilemma had a human face. And isn’t it much more convenient to say, “Well I wasn’t mad all the years leading up to that moment, but in that moment I WAS MAD”? Because now it’s not her fault she murdered George Talboys. He bellowed at her and upset the precarious balance of her sanity is all.

I do, however, believe that Braddon has written us a lady sociopath. She admits to Robert that she’s never been good with emotions. And the way she describes love—mainly in terms of what the other person can give her—shows that she has no real comprehension of how love works. The crisis that followed the birth of Little George sounds a lot to me like postpartum depression, which I’m sure was not improved by her waking up one day to find her husband gone. And then, further cementing her status as an “unnatural woman,” she could not love her child.

But she is so clever at hiding her inability to connect emotionally with other people. She understands that no one would accept this absence of feeling in her when it so harshly contradicts the Victorian ideal for women, so she giggles and smiles her arse off and acts like a perfect infant to disarm everyone.

The doctor whom Rob brought in to pronounce Lucy insane said a lot of things that were clearly bull-fritters (latent insanity is maybe not a thing), but in the end I think this was a reasonable diagnosis:
“She has the cunning of madness, with the prudence of intelligence. I will tell you what she is, Mr. Audley. She is dangerous!”
Don’t fear the person who rages and breaks things and yells “I AM MAD I AM MAD I TELL YOU.” Fear the person who calmly touches a flame to the curtains.

Well now I’ve gone on about Helen/Lucy and haven’t said a thing about anyone else. GOOD THING THIS IS A READALONG.

But I will just say this one thing: The real surprise twist for me isn’t that George Talboys is still alive; it’s that Luke Marks is the hero of the story.

Still a jerk though.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Five Days at Memorial: Sheri Fink would look good in a cape probably

Five Days at Memorial is a painstakingly reconstructed retrospective of the events at Memorial Medical Center in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. The short of it is that early into those five long days, floodwater knocked out the hospital’s generators and left patients and staff to make do without life-saving medical equipment or air conditioning or plumbing. Rescue was slow in coming, and tension steadily climbing. More than 40 patients never made it out of the hospital alive, and an investigation into these deaths in the months after the storm revealed that a number of critically ill patients were apparently injected with a combination of drugs intended to hasten their deaths.

Most of us closely followed the news coverage during and after Katrina. But the trouble with getting your news as it happens is that situations that have layers of complexity tend to get boiled down to a pencil sketch as news anchors report the limited facts available and then rehash them until another tiny nugget surfaces. And then you have the talking heads that are meant to provide nuance and perspective but usually just end up vehemently debating two extreme sides of a hot-button issue. Henry A. Grunwald, the late managing editor of Time magazine, summarized this catch-22 of the profession:
Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.
But with the benefit of 6 years of research and a whole lot of hindsight, Sheri Fink managed to give us the whole story at this one hospital with all the gray areas included, also offering the context of historical debates over palliative care and euthanasia, and even the somewhat ridiculous history of New Orleans disaster unpreparedness at every organizational level. And, yes, in a few places the background details did get a little dry, especially since I’m incapable of skimming.

But the more facts Fink throws at you, the more you realize how much you just didn’t know about this situation. For example, I was surprised to read that racial tensions still run so high in New Orleans that some of the white doctors at Memorial immediately feared that the surrounding black community would take advantage of the storm and attack the hospital, to loot it for drugs or just to express their resentment toward the hospital itself, which at one time had been affiliated with support for slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racial segregation. This fear of outside threats increased the sense of desperation inside and certainly contributed when it came time to make critical decisions. And that's the sort of thing outsiders like me might never take into account.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and the events at Memorial were affected by the city’s history, corporate politics, inadequate disaster preparedness plans, ongoing national debates centered on issues of medical ethics, a post-storm environment that many likened to a war zone, and the personal biases and opinions of nurses and doctors (because humans). Memorial wasn’t even an isolated case. Numerous other hospitals and nursing homes also came under scrutiny for negligence and malpractice during the storm.

For all these reasons, this isn’t just one of the best and most thorough investigative journalism pieces ever crafted; it's also the complete review of evidence that the actual criminal trial never conducted for reasons that still don't make a whole lot of sense. And that means this book is the closest thing to public accountability that the medical professionals wielding syringes at Memorial on September 1, 2005, will ever have to face. And it's the closest thing to justice the families of the dead will ever get.

It's not perfect, but it can be pre-tty sexy.