Monday, March 29, 2010

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean

Never let it be said that I can’t honor a deadline. Pajiba officially announced this month’s Book Club selection around a week ago, leaving not a lot of time for readers to have completed it for the March 30 discussion. However, being game for most literary challenges, I made sure to check out the novel from the library and finished it within 24 hours. With a pace like this, I’m just about caught up on my book count for the overall Cannonball Read.

Now then, official notations aside, did I like the book? Yes. As scandalous as it might seem to some, the only Neil Gaiman I’d read prior to this novel were some of his short stories. Anansi Boys is on my shelf, but I’ve yet to pick it up. Despite this relative unfamiliarity, I went into The Graveyard Book knowing to expect smart, supernatural writing.

Nobody Owens, “Bod” for short, lives in a graveyard. Since he was a toddler, he’s been raised by the ghosts and other beings who reside there, including the neither-living-nor-dead guardian named Silas. Though he does not remember his birth family, he is discouraged from leaving the graveyard. If he leaves, the mysterious man who killed his family will be able to find him, and the graveyard will not be able to offer its protection.

Silas does not so much act as a father figure in the traditional sense, though he’s not quite a mentor either. Since he is able to leave the graveyard, he can provide Bod with food and clothing, but he is not warm like Bod’s ghost-parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. Silas remains matter-of-fact, prodding the boy to learn all he can from the graveyard inhabitants, as well as answering some of Bod’s questions himself. When Bod asks about the unconsecrated grounds at the end of the graveyard, Silas says:

“[T]here are people who find their lives have become so unsupportable they believe the best thing they could do would be to hasten their transition to another plane of existence.”

“They kill themselves, you mean?” said Bod. He was about eight years old, wide-eyed and inquisitive, and he was not stupid.


“Does it work? Are they happier dead?”

“Sometimes. Mostly, no. It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

And therein lies the theme of the book — Your life is what you put into it After you die, you will no longer change; the chance to do so has gone. This idea stays with Bod as he grows older and his time in the graveyard is coming to a close.

Even without Gaiman saying so in the acknowledgments, the story has obvious parallels to The Jungle Book. Having not read the books and only seen the Disney movie, I am sure I missed many of the references, but this felt like a great retelling nonetheless.

In the library, The Graveyard Book sits in the children’s section, and I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s a fine example of fiction that is not dumbed down for its readers. It doesn’t use superfluous slang, doesn’t take great pains to feel “modern,” but rather does what all good fiction should do — remain timeless, regardless of the period in which it is set. The writing is excellent and compelling, even to a reader who does not spend a lot of time within the macabre. It’s the sort of book you would want to hand to your nine or ten-year-old and say, “Please, start here.” Younger readers should be so lucky to have a literary foundation as fascinating as Neil Gaiman.

Book #21/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Breaking Up is Hard to Do by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, Lynda Sandoval

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
by Niki Burnham, Terri Clark, Ellen Hopkins, Lynda Sandoval

Everyone remembers their first crushing break-up, their first love, and even when one knows the relationship wasn’t meant to be, it’s still a confusing and painful time. And when it happens, one might do well to read about someone who has gone through the same, without any paranormal sparkles. With short stories aimed at younger teenagers, written from teenagers’ point-of-view, I started this book with a more forgiving attitude.

Once again, I found myself reading an advance copy from a bookstore giveaway, meaning that the manuscript was still subject to change. For the most part, the writing itself didn’t reveal this, but several formatting issues and typos did. Also, the character names mentioned on the back cover did not match any of the stories’ names, save one. They’re not even similar (Emmy instead of Dee, for example), and in the case of Ellen Hopkins, even her name is listed incorrectly inside the book. Copy edit fail.

The quality and authenticity of each story varied. In Niki Burnham’s “Last Stand,” Toby wrestles with the idea of losing his virginity to his high-maintenance girlfriend, Amber. He’s the nice, studious type who often put others’ needs in front of his own. When he rejects Amber’s advances, it leads to their break up.

Isn’t there something wrong with the idea that the decision of whether or not to have sex with someone hinges on bravery? Not that Amber would listen if I pointed that out.

Though I’ve never been equipped with a cautious teenage male brain, Toby’s way of telling the story didn’t feel too off base. He bounces back and forth from being completely honest (“She is also stacked”) to worrying about what people think of his honesty (“I understand that this is a totally sexist thing to say. So shoot me. They’re THERE. You can’t help but notice”).

Terri Clark’s “Don’t Mind Me” was the weakest story of the four. Goth kid Dee lands a popular boyfriend over the summer. She’s ready to get serious with him when they’re in a car crash. When she wakes up, she discovers she can hear his thoughts, and because of this, she knows that he was only dating her for “research.” He and a buddy are supposedly writing a book about getting any girl you want by being “who they want you to be.” She and other girls who have been wronged decide to take their revenge by means of public shaming.

The dialogue ranged from over dramatic to flat out trying too hard. Now, I understand that goth high schoolers might be prone to overdone declarations, but when Dee’s friend Pixie says things like, “By Bauhaus, I think we’ve got it,” I gotta roll my eyes. This is probably the first story I’ve ever read where pages of text are formatted around an IM conversation, slang and all. While that’s a very natural place for some important teenage conversations to occur, it still hurt to read.

Ellen Hopkins’ “Just Plain Lisa” was less a short story and more of a free verse poem, if my rusty poetry knowledge is accurate. As the title would imply, Lisa is a plain and quiet girl who works at the local Jumping Java during the summer before her senior year.

Early in the day, they’re mostly
guys in business suits, some of
them are def fine, despite a few
too many worries worn in delicate
webs at the corners of their eyes.

Lisa’s never had a boyfriend before, so when Chet asks her out, she hesitates for a moment. Is he her type? Does she even have a type? Figuring that not too many guys are calling at all, she decides to give him a chance and eventually falls in love. However, throughout their relationship, Chet says things like, “You would look good with red hair” or “Thought you should skip the souffle. It’s calorific.” When she starts to notice that much of his behavior is too controlling and that she’s changed herself too much to suit him, they break up after a drunken argument at a party.

Look, Lisa, asking you out was like
a tryout.
His voice is honest. Mean.
I needed to play Single A before
trying out for the majors, you know?

Reading that, it’s easy to say she should’ve just kneed him in the junk, but I suppose it’s natural that through her shock, she only tells him to get the hell away from her and finds her own way home. Her internal monologue is a bit trying when it goes on for too long — the insecurity can often turn into immaturity, more like a girl who is a few years younger.

Still, that’s why I get the feeling this book is aimed more at ages 13-15, purposely written with characters who are around 16 or 17. When I was just coming out of middle school, I didn’t want to read about kids my own age either. Then again, coming out of middle school, I’d already had a couple boyfriend implosions and was well on my way to a few more. Perhaps I’m not the best judge of who feels what when.

“Party Foul” by Lynda Sandoval is probably the strongest of the four stories. Mia has been dating Paige secretly throughout the summer. Paige is beautiful, popular and supposedly in love with her. Mia is out to her family and friends, but agrees to wait until school starts to reveal their relationship to others. However, right before the big end of summer bash, Paige suddenly says she doesn’t want to go to the party, that she’s “busy getting ready for school.” When Mia turns up at the party with her friend Allison, she sees Paige making out with football player Marcos. She confronts Paige in front of the crowd, and Paige outs her to everyone, saying some hurtful things in the process.

When Mia begins school, she encounters some expected teasing, but also support from other kids who feel different. Some fall within the GLBT acronym, but there are also Sunni Muslims, abstinence kids and others who are looking for a more comfortable community. To her surprise, Mia discovers that her classmate, a professional ballerina who spends a lot of time out of school performing, has also just suffered a break-up with a girlfriend. The two form a friendship and she tries to make sense of what happened with Paige.

Written in the style of a journal entry, there are a lot of asides and breaks for rationalizing and gushing, but it’s a cute story — a bit huggy and overly optimistic, but I get its intent. All four stories make the point that while we don’t often find happiness by the path we expected, it’s still possible. Because of that, I can forgive some of the sentimentality. It’s certainly not a perfect book, but your teenager could read far worse.

Book #20/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Names My Sisters Call Me by Megan Crane

Names My Sisters Call Me
by Megan Crane

The lipstick on the cover should’ve been my first clue. Or rather, the lipstick, lip gloss and Burt’s Bees-like lip balm because Oh-ho-ho isn’t it funny how women’s personalities are wrapped up in their make-up choices? Gee, thanks, cover artist, for being so insightful about my gender!

Let’s not judge the book by its cover – No, let’s judge it on all the other clichés written inside.

Because I’m moving in a few months, I wanted to know whether or not to put this in the Goodwill box. I’d acquired the novel at a bookstore giveaway, and it’s an advance reading copy, meaning it was technically subject to change before the final version hit shelves sometime in 2008. For that reason, I did not want to judge the writing too harshly, feeling it was important to give the story a fair shake.

I tried, I really did. Then I’d read stuff like this:

I was given to understand from her tone that ‘tension’ was to San Franciscans what sloth was to East Coast types (i.e. anathema).

My, that’s a big literary word you used there. I really needed that parenthetical to make the proper comparison.

Names My Sisters Call Me is essentially three hundred pages of overplayed themes in a story that could’ve been interesting. Courtney Cassel is engaged to her longtime boyfriend Lucas, an announcement that is met by her family with ten minutes of congratulations followed by an hour of drama. Her oldest sister, Norah, is still fuming over the day that middle child, Raine, drunkenly ruined her wedding reception and then ran away to California. Norah and Raine are so different from each other (because of course they are). Norah is a domineering, Type A personality, while Raine is the “free-spirited” hippie artist. No one but their mother has talked to Raine in six years, and Norah wants to know if Courtney will “betray” her and invite Raine to the wedding.

Conveniently, Lucas has business in San Francisco, so Courtney tags along to see her sister. And even more conveniently — because this wouldn’t be a lipstick cover novel without engagement complications — she will also see her semi-secret ex-boyfriend, Matt Cheney. Matt is Raine’s best friend, and he ended his relationship with Courtney the night he ran off to California with her sister. They reunite, and yes, let the fireworks begin.

“Let the fireworks begin,” by the way, is one of the few overused phrases that I don’t think appeared in the book. By page 198, I decided to make note of all the platitudes within a single page:

-“not going to tiptoe around”
-“facing the music”
-“draw a line and be done with it”
-“everyone else is in an alternate dimension”
-“let bygones be bygones”
-“Raine gets a free pass”
-“This is the only family we have.”

One page. The thing is, I would be just fine with a light and fluffy family drama story every so often, if only I wasn’t continually distracted by the way it was presented. Normally while reading a book for review purposes, I’ll write down quotes that I enjoy as I go, thinking I might reference them later. This time, I had quotes paired with comments like “They’re not delightful neuroses — They’re raging insecurities,” and “God, thanks for spelling that out for me!”

The attitudes towards men, while at least a change from “I need a man to be complete!” chick-lit, still feel false. Even when her fiancee is being one of the few reasonable voices, Courtney’s reaction is straight out of a high school script:

“I thought you already doubted she’d forgive you for going to California in the first place," Lucas pointed out. "So if she’s already not going to forgive you, who cares?"

Stupid male logic. I didn’t dignify that with a response.

Jokes with Lucas usually revolve around the security of his manhood, and any sex is very loosely implied, to the point where I wasn’t even sure it had happened. It’s not as though I require my books to get all hot and steamy (though, hey, feel free), but ending a scene with a playful swat and then “no room to think about anything else,” doesn’t really make matters clear.

When it comes to Matt Cheney, Courtney becomes even more insecure, and she never fails to remind us again and again that he makes her feel like she did that night six years ago, or when she was 13 and still had an unrequited crush. Yes, we need this information, but please stop saying it every five pages.

Often the book attempts to be funny and fails, in the same way that bad comedians present jokes with “look how clever I am” smirks:

I was an old pro at worshiping the Porcelain Goddess.
Trust Matt Cheney to bring out the worst in me.

...even if my legs were pale enough to blind unsuspecting pedestrians.

Writing funny is hard, but even with my rusty skills, I know there are at least five different ways those bits could have been better. Again, I don’t know what all made it into the final manuscript, but I’m surprised that what I read made it into an advance reading copy. Shouldn’t an editor have scribbled all over this? Or are there really women who think these “insights” are original? No wait, I know there are. Just read the cover blurbs.

Another thing — Matt Cheney is almost always referred to by first and last name, as though he is a celebrity. Every character but Raine does it, which is weird, since he’s supposedly known them all since childhood. He is of course the brooding musician, all tattoos and leaning forlorn against doorways — so different from fiancee Lucas, who is so affable and works in internet securities.

Crane also has a habit of writing the same thing twice. She makes an assertion, then says it again, all within the same paragraph. My copy editor fingers started twitching for a pen after reading passages like this:

If I had pointed out how alike they were in this, right down to their matching fake smiles, they would never have believed me. But I saw how obvious it was they were sisters. The same, despite their differences.

Did we need those last two sentences? No.

Though this novel was filled with flaws both major and minor, some moments I understood. Courtney works as a cello player in the second Philadelphia Symphony, and as a former cello player and major music fan in general, I related to her passion. When she talked about how playing made her feel, I wished the whole story could be like that — an honest exploration rather than lame attempts to be witty. Instead, I’m afraid this book will have to find a new home.

Book #19/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton

Oh, illicit love — that big, tortured subject that makes up so much of the classic novel. Writers may take varying attitudes towards it, but Edith Wharton seems quite set on tragedy. A happy ending is never in the forecast, and even a neutral one seems optimistic. A man may love someone other than his wife, but Wharton guarantees that no character will feel good about it.

Ethan Frome lives in the appropriately named Starkfield, a snowy New England farming town where “most of the smart ones get away.” After years of caring for sick parents, he barely scrapes out a living from lumber and some livestock. His wife, Zeena, has several unspecified ailments which read something like rheumatoid arthritis with a splash of hypochondria. Because her ailments render her unable to perform basic household duties, she brings in a younger cousin, Mattie Silver, to live with them.

Living with this bright creature from elsewhere, Ethan finds himself in love with Mattie and relishes their time together, especially the walks they often take:

“He longed to stoop his cheek and rub it against her scarf. He would have liked to stand there with her all night in the blackness.”

Every once in awhile, he thinks that Mattie may have feelings towards him, but he keeps his thoughts to himself. If he’s wrong, he doesn’t want to ruin what they presently have, or worse, have her leave.

It’s easy to see why he’s so smitten with her when compared with his wife. Zeena spends most of her time complaining about her various ailments, running off to the next doctor with a new “special powder,” and judging everything Ethan and Mattie do.

“Once or twice in the past he had been faintly disquieted by Zenobia’s way of letting things happen without seeming to remark them, and then, weeks afterward, in a casual phrase, revealing that she had all along taken her notes and drawn her inferences.”

I first read this book in my high school AP English class, sandwiched in somewhere between Frankenstein and the existentialism unit, which given the austere tone of the novel, makes sense. Despite my previously mentioned resistence to all things “classic,” I enjoyed reading it at seventeen years old. Perhaps because I’d spent time in love with people I would not ever be with, and was also in relationship that I knew deep down wasn’t going to work, I identified in a roundabout way.

Still, when it comes to illicit love, I tend to prefer the kind that does not stay illicit and resolves in some way. Given that, I wanted to reread this as an adult to see if I still enjoyed it without an undercurrent of teenage drama. And I did, to a degree. Perhaps I picked the wrong time to read it, should have waited until we were a little closer to warmer weather, but it took me a little while to get through what really is a short book. If it’s somewhat depressing to a person who’s just in a worn-out mood, then I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone feeling extremely dissatisfied with their life. That doesn’t make it a bad novel, just one for which to plan. Wharton’s writing perfectly captures the environment and characters, and in that way, perhaps some will find that it hits too close to home.

Book #18/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

From the tentatively titled Hollywood Ex-Pat:

This is what I read at the Olive It Cafe last night. I've just started work on this story again, and it's all very first draft still.

Some background info: Dominic Graham is the son of a famous actress, Edie St. James, who has recently been nominated for two Golden Globes and has a French boyfriend nearly half her age, Andre. One of his sisters, Gretchen, is only 25 and already a successful movie director. Living on his own in Spokane and away from these crazy prodigies, Dominic has recently started a relationship with an old friend. This picks up when Gretchen is driving Dominic back to the airport after Christmas in Malibu.

Gretchen decided to drive me to the airport again. With such an early flight, we pounded three espresso shots each before getting in the car. “No traffic, at least,” she said, pulling her hair back before starting the car. Without her makeup, I’d forgotten how many freckles she had. She turned down the stereo. We didn’t need any peripheral noise.

“What do you think of Andre?” I said after we’d reached the main road.

She glanced at me. “I know what you think of Andre.”

“Now, what’s that supposed to mean? What exactly do you think I think?”

“That he’s empty, that Mom’s too good for him, that he can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag.”

“That’s . . . not entirely true.”

“Well, if it makes you feel any better, I probably wouldn’t cast him, but you know, I’m around him more than you are. He’s honestly not empty.”

“I know.”

“Do you?” She headed towards the highway.

“Mom’s happy, so it’s fine. I don’t know . . . I mean, she was too good for our dad, but here we are.”

“Right. There’s an upside.” She nodded, but her mouth flattened. Gretchen’s opinion of our father fluctuated, and this morning she seemed to be erring on the side of forgiveness. “Who knows what will happen with the two of them, but he doesn’t screw around on her, and they’re happy. What else is there to say?”

“You’re right.” I sighed. The caffeine pushed its way through my bloodstream and I rubbed the last bits of sleep from my eyes. “Can I ask you something else?”

“We have a drive ahead of us, so may as well, big brother.”

“Do I seem like a sad person?”

“Sad, like pathetic? Or sad, like depressed?” Her face revealed no surprise at the question.

“Shit, I guess either.” I asked for it.

She cracked a charitable smile. “Well, you can stop worrying about being pathetic cos you’ve never been a speck of it. Don’t let anyone think you’re squandered potential, all right?”

“Okay. Thanks, I guess.” She could always sniff out the unsaid, which made me nervous for what came next.

“Now, sad in the other way?” She paused. “Who knows, big brother. You were happy when you got off the plane, and I liked seeing that, so maybe you’re not anymore.”

“So, yes, then.” I swallowed.

“In general, sorry, yes. Sometimes, you seem depressed. And I know some of it used to do with being sick, but some of it just seems like your . . . constitution.”


“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, but you did ask.” She shrugged and glanced in the rearview mirror before passing the slow Taurus ahead of us. “Jeez, I’m the last person on Earth to pin hopes and dreams on a relationship, but maybe now that you’re with someone again, it’ll do you some good. Mom mentioned him way back when you were in college, but you know, I had high school junk going on.”

“Gretch, you practically had a production company at fifteen.” I laughed.

“Well, the so-called ‘film’ department at my school was garbage, you know that.” She smiled. “And I had that dumb boyfriend. Bobby.”

“Which one was he again? The one who wore a cape?”

“No, no, that was the gay one. Esteban. God, he was beautiful.” We were both laughing now. “No, Bobby was the stagehand who fell off the catwalk.”

“Ah yes, the body-cast boyfriend.”

“Serves him right for making out with Melissa Van Buren on the side.” Her eyes narrowed into a faux-serious glare before the inquiring grin reappeared. “But I’m curious to meet your boyfriend, man. Is he cute?”

“Of course he’s cute,” I said.

“Zac Efron cute or Hugh Laurie cute?”

“God, I don’t know. Mere mortal cute.” Jon Hamm cute, I thought.

“I heard Mom gave you three grand.”

I sighed. “Yeah, like I’m going to spend that much on two suits, but she wouldn’t let me say no.”

“Ah, put it towards the plane tickets. I’ll get us all into the Vanity Fair party. Be a part of the cool kids’ table and whatnot.” She snorted. “It’s fairly ridiculous that I’m invited at all.”

“Gretchen, come on. You’re like the new Sofia Coppola. Only, you know, your movies don’t have frustrating ambiguous endings.”

She gasped. “Do you know how much younger than Sofia Coppola I am?”

“Well you know those awards panels. They just see that you’re a girl and all and give you a nice pat on the head.” I braced for the inevitable punch in the shoulder.

“That’s it. I’m cleaning up next year,” She smacked the steering wheel instead and laughed. “Watch your back, Marty. Clint, Roman, Steven, I’m kicking all your old white asses.”

“With your itty bitty feet of fury,” I said.

“Shut up.” She pointed at me. “You watch. This movie I’m shooting right now? Instant classic.”

Gretchen likes to puff herself up every so often, the degree to which depends on how well shooting has gone. Based on the last on-set phone call I’d received, she must have had some doubts. Any time a person does not live up to my sister’s expectations, it kills her. She puts on a good show — Everyone else is the idiot, Everyone else is causing these problems — but I know what she’s thinking. I hired them. What does that say about me?

“All your movies are good,” I said. “And I don’t just say that because we share some genes, okay?”

“Damn straight.” She nodded.

When we pulled up to the airport drop-off area, she put her hand on my arm. “Hang on, I have something for you before you go.” Her other hand dug into her back pocket. “Close your eyes.”

“They don’t like people to idle, terrorist,” I said.

“Shut up and close your eyes.” I did. Into my hand, she slid a cold, round piece of metal. “Open up,” she said.

She’d made me a button. Purple background, one word: Bivalve. I started to laugh. “Oh, oh, I see what you did there.”

“I dare you to wear it at the Globes.” She beamed.

“I will consider it.” I slipped it into my bag. “Maybe on the inside of my jacket. Thank you.”

“Good. Did you know that there are certain kinds of oysters that can change gender?”

“Yeah, that’s not really in my skill set.”

“You sure?”


“Until next time, big brother.” We hugged goodbye, and I left her car feeling good. As badgering as Gretchen enjoyed being, I couldn’t ask for a better sister.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Habein 24-Hour MONTH Extravaganza at the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery

The MONTH Exhibit is this: From March 5th until the 27th, 24 different artists (or groups) spend 24 hours inside the Kolva-Sullivan Gallery, doing whatever it is they like to do. 5pm to 5pm, when the next person scheduled takes over. From March 10th until the 11th, the four of us were the artists-in-residence.

I let you get in a bit of giggle here, once you've realized that, yes, a 2-year-old and an almost 6-year-old were part of their own gallery show. Grace was understandably thrilled, and she packed up a giant cardboard box full of supplies -- canvases, paints, brushes, tape, glue, markers, oil crayons, ribbons. Just about everything she had, in addition to paintings she'd already done at home. We told her she could sell her work, in order to buy new supplies. She ended up making $4.87, including the 12 cents she made from Chris Dryer who asked what he could "commission on the cheap." She drew him a flower on a sheet of notebook paper.

As far as Jack went, we made sure to pick up a gallon of milk beforehand and to bring his big stuffed Spider-Man ("Man-Man") and a toy Spider-Man car (I don't know why Spider-Man would need a car, but that's a discussion for another time). When I asked him what else he thought he needed, he threw a bunch of comics into the cardboard box. Don't cringe, comic fans, these were ones from last year's Free Comic Book Day, not the autographed Batman and The Maxx ashcan we have stored.

We arrived as Conrad Bagley was finishing his 24 hours. He'd made some prints using a real fish, which were interesting, albeit a bit smelly. Thankfully, he took the fish with him.

Grace immediately got to work displaying her pre-made paintings, and then both kids dove into the art supply bin that was already provided. New and different supplies are always more interesting of course. They started painting on the walls probably within twenty minutes of being there.

Jillian showed me how to work the old record player provided, and I put a white vinyl Air album on for a little while before switching on the laptop for the inevitable Oasis mix. I started off with the remixes first, followed by some of Dig Out Your Soul, and then let it shift into some Doves.

Tyson set up his photography equipment, and I started the "Add a line" story on one the concrete column. I wanted something delightfully bizarre, so I went with...
"The last time I saw Bonzo, he had a pet squirrel named Sparkle Britches. On this afternoon, he and S.B. were now..."

Here's how it ended up:

The last time I saw Bonzo, he had a pet squirrel named Sparkle Britches. On this afternoon, he and S.B. were now... happily married, and they had the most beautiful wedding despite the warren of rowdy rabbits that had set up camp across the river, claiming the walnuts for himself. The best man formulated a plan which involved banana peels and jazz hands with the end result being the craziest kan kan line ever seen at a wedding. But then I wondered how were Bonzo the duck and Sparkle Britches so happy together even though they were so different? Bongo and S.B. had been dancing in the moonlight, and their only audience was the stars above. Suddenly, a giant flock of pterydactls swooped down from the hillside and....broke into a howling rendition of "Space Truckin" by Deep Purple. Being interrupted by such a classic rock hit sent Bonzo and S.B. into shock, and the pterydactls proceeded to lay waste to the peasants. And there was much rejoicing. Not from the peasants, mind you. Nor from the pterydactls (their high school gang name was the p"terror"dactyls), as they were under the impression that beneath them lay the largest flock of pheasants they had ever seen. No, the rejoicing was from the owners of a local co-op that had been eyeballing the peasants' property for the last year.

That was where it left off when our stay was over. I'll be curious to see what/if anyone has added.

Tyson had one model, Sarah, arrive for a shoot that evening, the results of which can be seen on his flickr page.

Since we live in the land of no pizza delivery, we took advantage of being able to order during our stay. The Pizza Rita guy took a look at all the stuff on the walls and went, "What the heck is going on here?"

The gallery provided one full size bed, and we fit, though very snugly. We finally got everyone asleep around midnight, after we convinced Jack that the noises he was hearing were not monsters but trains going by on the bridge outside. Grace woke up at 6am and was painting immediately, saying she wished she could live in the gallery. Tyson got up with her, but with more room in the bed, I decided to sleep another hour. Jack didn't wake up until about 8:45.

Grace and I walked around the corner to Rocket Bakery shortly after I got up. I got lattes for Tyson and me, fruit salad and a vitamin water for Grace, and an onion bagel. We also had leftover BBQ chicken pizza and breadsticks.

Our second day was mostly spent drawing on the walls, poking at the internet, and talking to the few people who came in. Tyson drew some pictures and I finished reading Motherless Brooklyn and wrote about half of the review. My other addition to the room:

I have a hunch that about half the artists on the roster are vegetarian, which might explain the anti-bacon painting left just above my addition a few days later. ;)

That 'Meats' cardboard strip came off a box Tyson found at work. He will occasionally cut out things he finds funny while breaking down a grocery load. "Meats" is just a funny word, and "You like red meat" was the placeholder phrase we used to use on all our headlines back in yearbook days, since it fit so well. And of course, we found it funny. So my artwork message is a little nod to my friends formerly of 112A.

We all had a lot of fun, and I think this a great idea in general. Major props to gallery owner Jim Kolva for allowing everyone to add to the space in this way. Grace really did not want to leave when Mariah McKay came in for her 24 hours. I tried to get a bit stern and failed:

ME: "Grace. Come on. If you don't start behaving, I'm going to start taking things away. How would you feel if your brother was allowed to play your DS all he wanted and you could only watch?"

GRACE: "I'll still have my art!"
*flops dramatically on the bed*

Tiffany and Jillian, who had arrived shortly before, tried to stifle a laugh. "Oh, you just got told."

I know. Kid's got an answer for everything.

Luckily, a grilled cheese bacon burger cured all her ails on the way home. "This burger is SO GOOD. And BACON! And it has MELTED CHEESE!"

You like red meats, indeed.

For more on MONTH, check out Tiffany Patterson's blog, Ugly Yellow or the MONTH Facebook Event Page. There are still plenty of artists left to see!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem

Motherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem

Whenever I feel like I’m being unoriginal with my writerly tics — similar words and phrases that often appear without thinking — I am comforted when I notice it in others. And in a novel all about tics, the unintentional bonuses are that much more entertaining.

In my last Lethem review, I noted his use of kangaroos in more than one novel — Gun, With Occasional Music and You Don’t Love Me Yet. In YDLMY, the kangaroo’s name is Shelf. In Motherless Brooklyn, written eight years earlier, there’s “a big indifferent loaf of cat” named Shelf.

Shelf’s not all that important to the plot, other than to further illustrate Lionel Essrog’s Tourette’s Syndrome. Tics, tics, everywhere.

Lionel grew up in Brooklyn at the Saint Vincent’s Home for Boys. One afternoon, a small-time mobster, Frank Minna, recruits him and three other boys for errands, mostly moving items from Point A to B. They are each paid $20 and a beer. Minna becomes a father figure to the boys as they grow up continuing to work for him, his “Minna Men.” Each serves a different role, Lionel’s most often being the “Freak Show.”

Minna is prone to grand tales and advice, puffing himself up to more importance than he has in the larger scheme of New York “business,” but he also seems to enjoy counseling the Men as proteges. Occasionally, he allows his personal life to show:

“Thing is, for me a woman has to have a certain amount of muffling, you know what I mean? Something between you, in the way of insulation. Otherwise, you’re right up against her naked soul.”

When Minna is killed under strange circumstances, Lionel decides to find out what happened. The journey has him patting and exploding with a mishmash of words while he accumulates information. He ends up following and avoiding a giant, unnamed man who seems intent on killing him and his co-workers, and trying to figure out the area Zen center’s secrets. With their leader gone, the Minna Men each have concerns for their future, with varying ideas of what they should do about it.

“The ashtray on the counter was full of cigarettes, butts that had been in Minna’s fingers, the telephone log full of his handwriting from earlier in the day. The sandwich on top of the fridge wore his bite marks. We were all four of us an arrangement around a missing centerpiece, as incoherent as a verbless sentence.”

The writing really is something else, and while the plot itself is plenty interesting and action-filled (the whole book takes place over just a couple days), I most enjoyed Lionel’s descriptions of his condition. In a roundabout way, I can relate to being fixated on certain foods (says the person who has peanut butter on toast almost every morning), and I most certainly feel better about the world after the right song or when I form lists in tidy increments of five. Tourette’s, OCD and addictive personalities — we’re all cousins on this lovely crazytrain.

“Prince’s music calmed me as much as masturbation or a cheeseburger. When I listened to him I was exempt from my symptoms. So I began collecting his records, especially those elaborate and frenetic remixes tucked away on the CD singles. The way he worried forty-five minutes of variations out of a lone musical or verbal phrase is, as far as I know, the nearest thing in art to my condition.”

The only part of the book that didn’t quite work for me was the introduction of Kimmary, a student at the Zen center. Sure, meeting her provides Lionel with some information that he needs, but she doesn’t feel like the only way he could have discovered the same information. I’m not sure — Maybe if I reread the book, I’d feel differently, but my first impression was that she was just a heavy-handed way to say, “Hey, look, people with Tourette’s can get some action too!”

Still, Motherless Brooklyn deserves all its acclaim and further demonstrates that Fortress of Solitude is not the only great novel Jonathan Lethem has written. Brimming with more elegant descriptions than I could include in this review, I strongly suggest you check out this compelling New York tale.

Book #17/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review was also published on Pajiba on March 26, 2010.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Everything Will Be All Right by Tessa Hadley

Everything Will Be All Right
by Tessa Hadley

I wanted to hug this book’s face off. If you’re not familiar with Sara-praise, that’s the kind of swooning compliment I reserve for Noel Gallagher and The West Wing. As in, I find very few faults in what I see, and the faults I do find, I brush off with the affection of an indulgent spouse. Talent moves me, particularly good writing.

So you’re saying you liked the book, Sara? Yes, I loved the book.

I first became acquainted with Tessa Hadley when The New Yorker published her story, "She's the One." (You can find all of her New Yorker stories here.) It had to do, partially, with writers and was set in the North of England. Of course I liked it. Wanting to know more, I decided to see what the library had.

Everything Will Be All Right covers several generations of women within one family, starting with a move from the North into the South of England, post-Word War II. If that sounds suspiciously like “women’s fiction” — that shudder-worthy label slapped on any novel with more than two uteri — one should be comforted to know that there is very little tearful bonding or coveting of accessories. This is a novel where the past continually informs the present, and each person must assess what brings them happiness and what must be sacrificed for success.

At 13, Joyce Stevenson lives with her mother, Lil, her sister Ann, along with her Aunt Vera and her children. Vera’s husband spends most of his time with another woman, and Lil is a widow, but the sisters vary widely in their demeanor. Vera, a teacher, values rules and education — facts as a means for comfort. Lil is more easy-going, and she takes care of all the housework, uninterested in books or further education.

Joyce decides to attend art school, where she is immediately entranced by the intense and talented teacher, Ray. He often invites groups of students over for parties, filled with booze and debate:

“Passionate discussions raged, always through a thick cloud of cigarette and pipe smoke: over art, over jazz, over privilege and class. At that time in the mid-fifties all the men wanted to be working class; they argued over whose parents were most authentically proletarian.”

She and Ray begin a relationship shortly after one of the parties, and they eventually marry. Their daughter, Zoe, is a smart and serious child who is attracted to anyone with a worldly manner. At around 10, this person is Fiona:

“She and Fiona clung together, laughing into each other’s shoulders. Zoe was completely happy. Instead of imagining life’s possible intensity, she was inside it; it filled her.”

When she and Fiona go to different secondary schools, they begin to drift apart — still seeing each other on occasion, but they are now in different worlds. Fiona, still cool and confident at the state school, is so much unlike studious Zoe attending the all-girl academy. Their fading friendship and Zoe’s quiet heartbreak killed me, just killed me.

When it’s Zoe’s turn for college, she attends Cambridge and falls for her own beautiful, tortured artist — a writer named Simon. They live a bohemian, non-materialistic lifestyle. Unlike her mother, who made a concerted effort towards marriage and adapting to her husband’s quirks, Zoe and Simon have a fractious relationship. She is smitten by his brilliance, but he can also be cold, even superior towards her. They end up with a daughter of their own, Pearl, born in the 1980s. Time eventually passes to just after 9/11, when Pearl is a teenager.

This is all a very bare-bones summation. To be honest, there’s so much to get into and feel enthusiasm over that I could write a rather involved essay. I don’t want to give away too much for future readers.

Reading this further cemented that I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself an intellectual. I think there’s a difference between that and being intelligent. I’m smart, sure, but everything to which I react strongly or think deeply about, I do so in an emotional way. I’m less interested in flexing my brain; I can do that in other ways. When it comes to any art, I want my heart to crack my sternum.

With that in mind, allow me to share a few of my favorite, rib-filling portions:

“She crossed to the bed, sat naked on his pillow, and from there slipped herself down inside the space his body had made in the sheets; right down into it, so that she was quenched in its dark and immersed in its not unpleasant male-bed smell, of pipe smoke and sweat and unwashed hair. For a few long moments she breathed in and out.”

“ — At this moment, he said, I can’t contemplate it. Not with you pressed up against me like that.”

“And the idea of a buckling container became a kind of shorthand sign for Zoe for years afterward, signifying that momentous first encounter with someone who is going to be important and be loved.”

Hadley moves throughout time and points of view with expertise. Just about every 10 pages, I found myself scribbling down quotes and then slowing down, torn between completing the story and inhaling each bit I loved.

Speaking of which, as a writer who is often kept up at night obsessing over scent descriptions, she often gets it so right, that it sets the scene more than any other description could. I should be so lucky:

“She could feel him bulky and hot and soft beside her; she could smell him, a spicy mix of sweat and spirits and smoke and something personal, a green smell like cut grass.”

Intense longing, bedtime smells, English accents and complicated artists? Man, it’s like someone created a book with me in mind, if only to give me a break from thinking about musicians.

This isn’t a tidy review; it doesn’t heed to journalistic standards or might not adequately capture the whole of the novel, but much like the story, I suppose life isn’t so tidy either. Whether above or below our expectations, it’s nothing if not surprising. Pick up this book. I cannot recommend it enough.

Book #16/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This book was also published on on June 11, 2010.