Who Wants to Live Forever Anyway?

anotherlittlepieceI have hungered for things. I have bargained with people I don’t like. I have hated myself for bargaining with people I don’t like. I have slept and dreamed shameful things. Shameful because I’d give anything to make them come true. When I was younger, that hunger was sharper, burned further and deeper. At 16 I would have sold my soul ten times over to get the thing I wanted. Now in my 30s I can shrug my shoulders at the first hunger pang of wanting something I can’t have. Now, I know better. Now I fully understand that annoying adage of “Be careful what you wish for.”

In Kate Karyus Quinn’s Another Little Piece, Annaliese Rose Gordon has been missing for a year. One day, she shows up in front of a trailer covered in blood and wearing nothing but a garbage bag. She is the missing girl who has come back from the dead. But she’s not Annaliese Rose Gordon. She doesn’t know who she is and her memories are just beyond reach. 

She calls her parents ‘The Mom’ and ‘The Dad’ because they don’t belong to her. She vaguely remembers a party, everybody drinking, music thumping against the ground. She remembers being in the woods with Logan, a high school jock. She had a crush on him forever. She makes a wish ( and believe me, this is no Disney “when you wish upon a star”) and gives her soul away to have Logan’s desire.

Turns out, she wasn’t specific enough. He isn’t in love with her. He just lusts after her. He’s cursed with an obsession for her. After she gives her virginity to him (all the while thinking “This is what I wished for? Hurry up and be done already”), a girl comes into the woods to tell Annaliese that she got what she wished for and now it’s time to pay. The girl makes her say it: “I will pay.” An old barber’s razor blade with names branded into the handle slices through Annaliese’s arm. Her rib cage is broken and her heart taken from her chest to be eaten. This is payment for her deepest desire.

I don’t know about you, but the older I get my wishes are less and less about lust and “having” someone. They’re more about “I wish the dishwasher wasn’t leaking” or “Dear God, there’s only one toilet in this house so please don’t let all 5 of us get the stomach flu at the same time.”

With a chunk of her heart being swallowed, the soul of the real Annliese disappears and the girl who has taken her body goes on to live her life, all the while knowing she’s an imposter with unreliable memories. ‘The Mom’ is fragile and hovers close, touching Annaliese as though she can’t believe she’s really there. ‘The Dad’ is mostly silent in a father’s way, watchful, more worried about the mom than he is with the returned Annaliese.

A squat red-headed boy at school follows Annaliese around. She has no clue who he is or what he meant to the real Annaliese. But this chubby little red-head isn’t just a moon-faced freshman. He’s also a body stealer (and he’s a little mad that he’s in a chubby kid’s body but hey, the chubby kid sold his soul and it was time to pay). Feeling smothered at home and overwhelmed at school Annaliese seeks out the boy next door named Dex. They become close friends, especially after he shares his own secret with her.

More memories start to surface. She calls herself Anna and begins to remember who and where she was before she took Annaliese’s body. The chubby kid tells her that they’ve always been together, taking bodies and then meeting up again. He’s the love of her life. She highly doubts that. He tells her that her 18th birthday is in a week. She has to take another body or suffer the consequences. She’s beginning to feel hunger pains, day dreaming about cracking open rib cages and plucking out beating hearts and eating them.

The cover of this book threw me off (yes, I do judge books by their covers) because I thought it was going to be a teen romance. And while it has a little romance in it, it also has cannibalism, body snatching, and wish-fulfillment. Pretty much the trifecta of what I look for in a book.

Another Little Piece isn’t a book about good versus evil. It’s about that lovely gray area: I’ve done horrible things and I’ll probably have to do some more horrible things to make everything somewhat right. This book definitely goes into my top 5 of great books to fall into this year. And I promise you that you’ll be thinking about it long after you read it. But wish for something good, like a leak-free dishwasher and a second bathroom.

Jennifer

Fun and Games With Satan

demonologistSomething unseen and unnamed has been trailing me for years. Sometimes pure happiness rides along on its back. Other times it carries bleakness and the kind of heartache that brings you to your knees. Whatever it is, it hides around corners and walks through doors before I can get a good look at it. Melancholia is such a pretty word for such a smothering feeling.

Well, that was depressing. Let’s call it a soul in crisis or a heavy case of spiritual torpor. Or better yet, demon possession. The devil made me do it.

In Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, David Ullman is a renowned demonic literature scholar and an expert on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He teaches at a college, is in a failing marriage, and the most important person in his life is his 12-year-old daughter Tess. She’s beginning to show the same signs of melancholia that he struggles with himself.

One afternoon, a mysterious woman comes into his office. There’s something off about her, something he can’t pinpoint at first. She’s painfully thin. Her face seems to change ever so slightly with the light so that he can’t quite grasp what she looks like. She invites him to Venice, Italy, to see something extremely rare. She gives David just enough information to pique his interest but it is also vague enough to make him feel slightly uneasy. His plane ticket will be paid for, a lavish hotel suite is booked, and he’ll be given a generous fee just for showing up.

That evening when his wife declares she’s leaving him, David thinks it’s the perfect time for a trip. His marriage is in the toilet, his wife is openly seeing another man, and his daughter has become withdrawn and constantly writes in her journal. David packs a couple of suitcases and then heads off on what he thinks will be an exciting adventure.

In Venice he leaves Tess with a babysitter. She’s old enough to stay on her own but in a foreign country it puts his mind at ease that the hotel has a baby sitter on site. He’s been given an address and then spends a long time roaming the ancient and crooked streets looking for it (because heaven forbid a man stop and ask for directions).

He nearly gives up but then he finds his destination. He is led upstairs into a room where a man is tied to a chair. The man who answered the door hands him a video camera and practically runs out of the building. The man in the chair is muttering, cackling and obviously cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

The man looks up at David, his face shifting and turning. Another trick of the light? And why is this guy tied up? Is this some elaborate hoax being played out? David points the camera at the man and something inhuman takes a breath and begins to speak. Still thinking someone is playing a trick on him, David begins to interact with the demon possessing the man. He taunts it and tries to get the demon to say its name.

Names have power: Rumpelstiltskin realized that once someone knows your name it’s like they have a small piece of you, a piece you aren’t willing to give up. David asks the demon if he is Satan himself. The demon answers, no, just a demon. Evidently, when you think you’re talking to Satan it’s like thinking you’re talking to Elvis only to find out you’re actually talking to Bubba his third cousin twice removed.

Just when David thinks this is all an elaborate joke, it becomes terrifyingly real when the man begins to speak in the voice of David’s long dead father. He says something David has never told another person, words that David himself tries not to think about.

David rushes back to the hotel, his dealings with what he believes was a demonic entity convincing him that his daughter Tess is in danger. He finds her on the hotel’s roof, her feet perched on the edge. In dream-like slow motion she plunges into the Grand Canal below, her parting words: “Find me.” These two words throw David Ullman into an insane journey across America, following clues hidden in the prose of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He never stops searching for his daughter. Her body was never found. She’s out there waiting for him.

exorcistI watched The Exorcist when I was 6 years old. My parents had gone out for the evening and my oldest brother was babysitting me. In his 16-year-old wisdom it was perfectly normal to let his 6-year-old sister watch a girl projectile vomit on a priest and use foul language that would make a longshoreman blush.

The thought of demonic possession has always terrified me because it seems to be a sibling to mental illness. If depression can get in and tangled up a human’s brain who’s to say some other being couldn’t slip on through and try on a human body? The Demonologist scared me nearly as much as The Exorcist. Almost. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take some pills to keep the demons out. Or in.

Jennifer

The Wolf Inside

Hemlock groveThere are books that get inside of you like a bloated white worm. You can feel it in there, just to the left of your heart, burrowing deeper, further away from the light and closer to the red dark. When I was 17 I read Helter Skelter, a fat book about the Manson Family murders. It was such a bleak book, weighing so heavily inside my head that when I finished it I hid it in a cardboard box in the basement and made sure that the next time a charity truck came around to pick up donations, that box was first out on the porch.

Brian McGreevy’s Hemlock Grove has a similar feel (except I couldn’t put it in a donation box since it’s a library book). The Godfreys own Hemlock Grove, a small Pennsylvania town. They once owned a steel mill that now lies dormant and desolate. It is now a warren of machine mazes for the town’s teens to get drunk and practice (and fail) the rhythm method. Roman Godfrey lives with his mother Olivia and sister Shelley in the Godfrey mansion. His mother reminds me of a wealthy mother from the 50’s: devoid of warmth and maternal instinct but with a purring liquid voice helped along by excessive (and socially acceptable) amounts of Valium. A snake has more warmth than Olivia Godfrey. 

There’s a creepy intimacy between mother and son, a relationship that feeds gossip and uneasiness. And it kinda made me throw up a little in my mouth. Olivia’s 15 year affair with Norman Godfrey continues, even after his brother (Roman’s father?) commits suicide. Norman is weak (as most humans are in the face of love that eats away at the brain and heart) and continues to see Olivia even after vowing “This is the last time.” Famous last words.

Peter Rumancek and his mother arrive in Hemlock Grove and move into a relative’s mobile home. They are Gypsies. I’m not being judgmental here. They openly call themselves Gypsies and are more than proud of it. Not long after they move to town, a girl is brutally attacked. No, not just brutally attacked. The girl is torn in half, her milky cobalt blue eyes staring into the great nothing. The other half of her body is missing.

Sometimes a wolf goes crazy and doesn’t eat what it kills.

Christina, a high school freshman who wants to be a famous novelist questions Peter. She asks him with the bluntness of youth without an inner filter “Are you a werewolf?” Being polite as possible he tells her to shut up and go away. Roman Godfrey takes an interest in Peter and the two begin to hang around. They make an odd couple: Roman Godfrey, the scion of a wealthy family and possessing the gift of hypnotism by looking into a person’s eyes and Peter Rumancek, a tetherless wanderer who never stays in one spot for very long and who has a talent for slipping his skin during a full moon. 

After another murder the two team up to find out who-or what- is tearing young girls apart. What else is there to do in a small town after dark? Join forces and hunt for clues, a demonic duo as unlike the Hardy Boys as can be. 

At the center of the story is the White Tower, the Godfrey’s medical institute where strange experiments run by Doctor Johann Pryce are conducted. Shelley Godfrey, a speechless giant of a girl (over seven feet tall standing up straight) is often tested there. The word supernatural never pops up but there’s something to Shelley’s conception and growing. Her skin glows at certain moments: happiness, sadness, fear. Her brother and Doctor Johann affectionately call her Glow Worm. She embodies the name gentle giant. She is an old sweet soul with fierce intelligence. Her heart breaks each time a child sees her and bursts into terrified tears or the whispers about her aren’t so hushed.

Amidst the carnage is the story of Letha Godfrey, Roman’s cousin. She claims to have been visited and impregnated by an angel. She plans on keeping the baby. Roman’s territorial attitude with Letha almost rivals his bizarre relationship with his mother, especially when Letha takes an interest in Peter. Two more murders take place and Roman decides the time has come to kill whatever is targeting the town’s people.

If you’re a fan of gothic horror with a modern twist, read this book. The author worked with Netflix to bring it to the screen and it was better than great. Some books don’t translate well into movies but the series followed the books closely. It’s like a day time soap opera on crack. I might have to watch it again.

Jennifer

Sin-Eater’s Confession

I don’t have all the answers to what happened back home, or why people did what they did, or, more to the point, why I didn’t do what I should’ve.

sineatersconfessionThe Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick is a novel about truth and rumors and the murky area between the two. The book opens with a young man named Ben who writes down his story while he’s stationed in Afghanistan as a medic. In folklore, a sin-eater is “a man who (according to a former practice in England) for a small gratuity ate a piece of bread laid on the chest of a dead person, whereby he was supposed to have taken the sins of the dead person upon himself.” Now to me, that makes it sound like you could be a dark soul who while living enjoyed torturing small children and setting houses on fire, but as long as you died and some poor schmoe was around to absolve you of all sins your slate was wiped clean. 

Ben starts his story as a high school senior who has more than enough on his plate. His mother is constantly on his case to apply to dozens of colleges and he volunteers at the local emergency room just because his mom thinks it’ll look great on his college application. During the summer, another senior, Del, is killed by a drunk driver. Ben volunteers to help Del’s family on their farm, befriending his younger brother Jimmy. 

Del was a high school jock but his brother Jimmy is a timid kid who is verbally abused by his father. Jimmy’s father can’t seem to stand the sight of him since Del died. Ben feels sorry for Jimmy but doesn’t really know what to do. Jimmy confides to Ben that he wants to be a photographer. Ben tells him that he doesn’t want to be a doctor but wants to be a writer. They’re just two dudes talking, imagining the lives they’ll one day lead.

One day while taking a break under an unforgiving sun, Jimmy begins to tell Ben something. He can’t quite get the secret out of his mouth and Ben becomes uneasy because he thinks he already knows what that secret might be:

It’s terrible and huge and awesome all at the same time that I am dying to let out-and only to you. Because only you will understand. Only you matter. If I tell, maybe everything changes-and not for the good. And I don’t know if I can bear that.

When school starts there’s no time for Ben to help Jimmy on his family’s farm. He hates to admit it but he kind of forgets about Jimmy, forgets that he told him he’d be there for him if he ever needed a friend.

Rumors begin to fly when a picture of Ben shows up in a magazine. The picture is fairly innocent: Ben lying in the sun after hours of hard work, unaware of the camera. Jimmy had taken his photograph and entered it into a contest and won. Everybody’s talking about the picture. Jimmy must be gay. He took a picture of a shirtless Ben resting against a bale of hay. Ben must be gay too. It’s obvious.

But is it really? 

Ben begins to question himself. He’s never had a girlfriend but is that because he’s so busy volunteering, getting a 4.0 in school, applying to the most prestigious colleges that there’s no time for a girlfriend? Or does he keep himself busy because he doesn’t want to question himself too closely? 

Somehow Ben gets painted as the bad guy. Jimmy’s father doesn’t want him around because he thinks he’s a bad influence on his son. The photograph must have been Ben’s idea. The Christian coffee shop where Jimmy buses tables treats Ben like he’s something rotten they stepped in. 

Ben’s small and orderly world begins to spin-off its axis as the rumors grow teeth. All his life Ben has been pushed to be the best by his mother. She can’t have a simple conversation with him without asking if he’s written an essay for his Yale admission.  Little by little he’s admitting to himself that his life isn’t his own.

He decides to talk to Jimmy, this time without the evil eye from the coffee shop owners and the creepy pastor that seems to have a fierce hold on Jimmy’s family. He sees Jimmy behind the coffee shop, hears low murmuring voices and then a loud “No!” He watches as Jimmy gets into a car with someone he can’t quite make out and follows them for what seems like forever. The car finally pulls into a state park. What happens next shapes Ben’s and Jimmy’s lives forever.

There is no moral lesson in this book. There are no answers. But that’s how life is. Would I really be there for someone if they needed me or is that something I just say to make someone feel better? Do I keep myself busy because I can’t figure out who or what I want in my life? 

Can I count on myself to know what’s best for me? Barely. Will I sometimes get swept up in gossip and rumors? Most certainly. Will I be a strong enough person to find out the truth behind rumors and gossip? I hope so.

The Sin-Eater’s Confession did what it intended to do: it promised there’d be no answers to any questions. But it told a familiar story, one that we all face day-to-day. Who am I, really? Am I what I want to be or do I play a different role to make others happy?

There are no answers here.

Jennifer

Then You Were Gone

thenyouweregoneI knew I was going to like this book when I read the author’s dedication:  For my best girls and my ex-BFFs

I think most grown women and young girls understand the power of an intense friendship. These relationships can be beautiful and decades long or they can be short-lived and downright destructive to the point where a person loses their own identity. It’s not any comfort to know that friendships can be as baffling at the age of 40 as they are the age of 16. It is a comfort, however, to find friends you once thought lost.

At the start of Lauren Strasnick’s Then You Were Gone, Adrienne and Dakota have had an intense friendship that ended two years ago. Dakota was more than a wild child; she’s the kind of girl mothers want to keep both their sons and daughters away from. Dakota is the poster girl for damaged teenagers. She’s the girl who ingests a speedball and thrash dances barefoot on top of a thin glass table top. 

Now a high school senior, Adrienne has put her life back together. There are times she gets heart-sick thinking about Dakota, but she knows she’s better off without her. But one day Adrienne gets a phone call from Dakota and doesn’t answer. Adrienne is plagued by guilt when she finds out Dakota has gone missing. She should have called her back. Did Dakota commit suicide or has she just disappeared like she does now and again, both worrying and angering her loved ones? Dakota fronted an up and coming band that was picking up an underground following. There were even rumors of getting a record deal. So why did she disappear? 

The world Adrienne had put back together for herself begins crumbling after Dakota’s disappearance. She doesn’t know if she loves her boyfriend Lee or if being with him is comfortable and safe. Her best friend Kate doesn’t understand why Adrienne is obsessed with finding Dakota. Adrienne doesn’t understand it herself. Their friendship ended two years ago. Why should she care? But she does. She becomes blind to anything but finding Dakota. 

Adrienne begins to turn into Dakota, donning dark-colored clothing and lining her eyes with kohl. She begins to hang out with Julian, Dakota’s on again off again boyfriend. The two of them even break into the house Dakota lived in with her step-father thinking that maybe he killed her and did away with her body. Adrienne begins skipping classes, not turning in her assignments, and not participating in lectures like she once did. 

In the back of her mind she knows she’s trying to turn herself into Dakota. A small part of her is screaming at Dakota, shouting that she’s messing everything up, her perfect relationship with her boyfriend, her grades, even her relationship with her mom. She’s desperate to find Dakota. But she’s also desperate for Julian to see her as Adrienne and not “Dakota’s former best friend.” She starts to wonder if she and Dakota had actually been friends or if Dakota had just used her. After breaking into Dakota’s house and searching her room she finds a photograph tucked inside a book.

Slipping the book back on the shelf, I see it.  A photo corner jutting out the top.  I pinch it.  Pull slowly.  My belly bottoms out.  Me.  It’s me.  I’m twelve, maybe?  Thirteen?  I’m licking an ice cream cone.  My eyes are crossed.  Did she take this?  Proof, finally.  Of our friendship.  I mattered once.   Even if I don’t anymore.

Adrienne begins to get phone calls from a blocked number. She almost convinces herself it has to be Dakota. But that ship has sailed. Dakota is nowhere to be found. After someone finds one of Dakota’s boots washed up on the beach Adrienne decides to let go and accept that Dakota is dead. She dumps all of the dark clothing, gets rid of the kohl eye liner and is ready for things to get back to normal with her boyfriend, her English grade and her friend Kate. No more of The Mystery That Is Dakota Webb

Except it’s not so easy going back to the way things were. Adrienne’s boyfriend Lee has started seeing someone else after being ignored by Adrienne. She writes the essay she’s been given two extensions on and her English teacher won’t accept it. She’s let him down. She’s let so many people down.

Dakota Webb has done more harm in disappearing than she has by being around. Little pockets of freshmen start to dress like her. A memorial goes up. She gets raised to near deity status. You know you really matter only if you’re dead. Tupac’s been dead for years and he’s still insanely popular. Same with Elvis. I think they’ve both been seen alive and well, traveling somewhere in the North with Bigfoot. 

Dakota is becoming a legend and most people are forgetting how self-serving, how manipulative she was. Adrienne realizes that their friendship was never equal. She followed Dakota’s lead and let her abuse her because she thought that’s what friendship meant. Having a healthy friendship with someone like Kate restores Adrienne’s self-esteem. Life’s not perfect and life’s not always flowers and fairy tales but her life has become more stable having gone through her friendship with Dakota.

Read Then You Were Gone for the mystery inside but also read it to get a picture of surviving a tumultuous friendship and coming out of it a stronger person. Some of us have been like Adrienne, used and constantly tested. But with time we begin to return to who we were before, all the better for having gone through a rough friendship.

Jennifer

Warm Bodies

warmbodiesMy skin is always cold. I don’t like people to touch me, to try to hold my hand or touch the back of my neck because the skin there is always cold. Even in the middle of a scorching August day parts of my body are cold. Passing mirrors or shop windows I’m startled into remembering I’m inside this body. I feel like I just fell into it, that I was somewhere else a few minutes ago and then boom! I’m human again. Being inside this skin is almost ridiculous. I think that’s how zombies would feel if they were real. Or had thoughts beyond “That brain looks tasty.”

Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies is a beauty of a book. It’s an atypical zombie read with surprisingly beautiful writing. There’s R, a zombie who lives at an abandoned airport along with hundreds of other zombies. There are out-posts of survivors who go on foraging missions for supplies and weapons. Some make it back in one piece. Some are lost to the world of the dead. There’s no explanation for the zombies or how they came to be. We seem to be the cause or the wrong we’ve done to the planet and to each other:

We released it. We poked through the seabed and the oil erupted, painted us black, pulled our inner sickness out for everyone to see. Now here we are in this dry corpse of a world, rotting on our feet ‘til there’s nothing left but bones and the buzz of flies.

From the very beginning R is a different kind of zombie. He loves Sinatra and lives alone in one of the grounded airplanes while all the other zombies group together. He can’t remember his name or who he was before becoming a zombie. He dreams. “Normal” zombies don’t sleep much let alone dream. R gathers bits of memories when he eats people. He sees their lives spread out before him. He savors their lives the way a zombie savors….well, human meat.

One day R and a few other zombies go out on a hunting mission and run up against human survivors. There’s a battle (the humans lose, of course) and R meets Julie. He’s chomping away at her boyfriend’s brain and quickly falls in love with her. He feels an overwhelming need to protect her and this freaks him out. He’s a zombie. He’s not supposed to feel protective of anyone or anything except maybe what bit of flesh belongs to him.

Surprisingly, the feelings are mutual for Julie. The only problem standing in their way, besides the whole he’s a corpse and she’s alive thing, is Julie’s father who’s a big muckety-muck in the service. He runs the small city Julie and other survivors live in. There’s always a psychotic father/general/sheriff in the zombie world, huh?

R tries to get across the message that the zombies are changing, evolving into something different. Julie sees this and tries to explain it to her father but Crazy General Dad can’t and won’t see the changes. All he sees is death and destruction and his own place eradicating the zombies from this world.

The one thing both zombies and humans have in common is their fear of the Boneys. These are zombies so ancient that they have only the slightest of skin stretched tight over their bones. They’re walking skeletons. They do not evolve. In fact, they seem mighty ticked off at R for becoming something and someone new and try to put a halt to it.

Part love story, part survival story, Warm Bodies is a novel about change and acceptance and loving someone even if they eat your boyfriend’s brain. I was once told that there’s a lid for every jar when it comes to being loved, that there’s someone for everyone. If you can love the zombie who ate most of your boyfriend then you, my friend, have found the best kind of love.

Just make sure your zombie boyfriend brushes his teeth before he leans in for that kiss.

Jennifer

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

unlikelypilgrimageThere are some days when I drive in to work and I think “What if I just keep driving? What if I don’t make that left-hand turn into the library parking lot and I just keep going?”

I’m a creature of habit and I thrive on my routine. But what if I did keep driving? What if I changed my life by making the decision to drive a few more miles to an unfamiliar place? I’m a slave to my own predictability but I crave something, some event, some place, that will light up my life like the Fourth of July. Or even a 75 watt light bulb in a dim basement.

Harold Fry, the main character in The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, is also a man of routine. He worked for over forty years in a brewery and has recently retired. He and his wife of 47 years sleep in separate rooms and barely have anything to say to one another. He has a son named David who he doesn’t speak to. He spends much of his retirement wondering where he went wrong with his son and wife and what he could have done to change the past.

20 years ago he became close to a co-worker named Queenie Hennessy. They weren’t romantically involved but they formed a special bond. She was fired and he hasn’t seen her since. One day he gets a letter from her. She’s dying in a hospice and doesn’t have much time left. Harold writes a letter to her and walks to the mailbox a block away from his house to mail it. He passes it and decides to walk on to the next mailbox. 

This simple chain of events sets into motion Harold’s journey. He decides to walk a little further. And then a little further. And further. Eventually he decides he’s going to walk the 600 miles to where Queenie lays dying. All he has are the clothes he’s wearing and his wallet. His first stop is at convenience store where the young woman behind the counter tells him her aunt had cancer. The clerk decided that her aunt wasn’t going to die because she had enough faith to keep her aunt alive. Harold believes that by walking the hundreds of miles Queenie will stay alive, waiting for him.

In the beginning he stays at cheap hotels, dining with the other guests who all start confiding things to him, things you wouldn’t even tell your priest during confession. He hears stories of disappointment and joy, tragedy, triumph, love, and hate:

And what no one else knew was the appalling weight of the thing they were carrying inside. The inhuman effort it took sometimes to be normal, and a part of things that appeared both easy and everyday. The loneliness of that.

Amen to that.

Soon, his journey becomes news and television stations run his story. People begin to walk alongside him. Many of Harold’s fellow walkers drop away, however, and he begins to deteriorate rapidly. He sleeps outside under the stars. He grows a beard and confuses the present day with the past. He obsesses over being a bad father to his son David and thinks about giving up, quitting the walk and having his wife come and get him. But he doesn’t give up, especially when he hears he’s only ten miles away from the hospice. 

Needless to say, the Queenie he finds is not the same Queenie he knew twenty years ago. Then again, if I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty years we’d probably both agree we weren’t the same people anymore. And then we’d say in what’s supposed to be an inside voice but somehow comes out in loud gleeful disgust:  “She got fat!”

At times touching, hilarious and downright heartbreaking, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry will suck you in and leave you asking yourself these questions: to what lengths would I go to in order to change my life and how long will I let the past haunt me?

I’m still being haunted by the things I’ve done in the past and so far the only length I’ve gone to to change my life is to cut out all dairy from my diet. It’s a start. Baby steps, baby steps.

Jennifer

Dwarf: A Memoir

DwarfI’m so short that at the age of 35 I still have to hop up on the kitchen counter if I want to get something from a high shelf. Sure, I could get the step stool but I’ll hop up there while I’m still able to. And I’m lazy. I don’t want to go the ten feet to get the stool.

Dwarf: A Memoir tells the story of Tiffanie DiDonato who was born with dwarfism. She decided to undergo a grueling series of operations to make her taller. The surgeon broke her arms and legs (at separate times) and set them with screws that Tiffanie had to twist twice a day to get the bones to stretch. She missed huge chunks of middle school and high school.

Her one true friend Mike was angry with her for having the operations because he thought she should accept herself the way she is. She explained to him that she wants to be able to do all the things most of us take for granted like walking up the stairs, walking across a street (she isn’t able to cross streets with enough confidence that she’s being quick enough) and being able to reach the coffee pot on the counter. Before her surgeries her arms were so short she couldn’t reach her own ears. Can you imagine not being able to give your ear a good scratch?

Kids can be cruel. We all know that. But adults can be worse. Tiffanie’s gym teacher gave her the stink eye one day and said “Look, I don’t know what kind of disease you have but you’re obviously a dwarf. Why don’t you tell me what you can and cannot do?” During one of Tiffanie’s long recoveries she plotted revenge on the teacher. It was something pretty diabolically clever but she didn’t go through with it because she realized she’s better than that. I wish I could learn that lesson. My brain still zooms to revenge when I get mad.

What we think of as basic dreams and needs are monumental achievements to Tiffanie.  She gets into college and spends her first six months squirreled away in her single room eating microwave dinners while listening to the kids in her dorm storm the hallways on their way to parties (or coming back very drunk from parties). Lonely and homesick, Tiffanie nearly quits college to return to the safety of home.

And then she begins to make friends with girls she’d nod shyly at in the hallways. She bites the bullet and joins a sorority. Not one of those “My daddy bought me a BMW and a diamond bracelet for my birthday so I thanked him by throwing up in the backseat and hocking the bracelet for Grey Goose money” sororities though. This is a sorority where everyone is welcome, fat girls, skinny girls, shy girls, and girls who spent the better part of their teenage years stretching their bones so they wouldn’t be identified as a dwarf.

Even though at times it is a little too “rah rah rah never give up!” for me, Dwarf: A Memoir nonetheless blew me away. Tiffanie’s determination to lead as normal a life as possible made me look at my own problems and realize how stupid and small they are. I was kind of hoping she’d do something most of us would do while spending months recovering: indulging in a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. She only breaks down once and allows herself to cry over her pain and her struggle to get to where she wants to be. Her rock, her biggest supporter and best friend is her mother who at times can seem almost cold in telling Tiffanie not to waste any tears.

Without her mother her story might have turned out differently. On the other side of the coin is Tiffanie’s father who is in constant fear for his daughter’s health and safety. One day Tiffanie looks at her father’s car and idly wonders if she’ll ever be able to drive. Her mom orders her into the car against her husband’s worried protests. Tiffanie can’t quite reach the gas pedal. She doesn’t want to get a specialized car with the gas and brake on the steering wheel. She wants to drive a real car. She tries each week. And one day she does it, her foot reaches the gas pedal.

As Tiffanie’s life unfolds, we see a brave human who gives us just a glimpse of the kind of determination (and plain old stubbornness) that humans are capable of when conquering their struggles, and the pure joy of coming out of the other side of years of surgeries and pain.

I’d still indulge in a nervous breakdown. But I’d blame it on the pain medication.

Jennifer

Bad Glass

I think I’ve always understood that I’m known around here as “that creepy girl” because I love all things scary and grotesque. It used to embarrass me when a co-worker would find a book about serial killers or zombies and immediately think of me. Little by little I’m embracing my creepiness. Some people knit. I like to read about monsters, human or otherwise. Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp has everything I could ever want: things crawling out of walls, chase scenes, party scenes, inexplicable animals roaming through the park.

20-something Dean Walker drives from California to Spokane after hearing reports of evacuations and strange happenings in that city. He thinks of himself as a photojournalist who’s going to bust wide open the story of what’s really going on in Spokane. Remember dreams and ambition? Ah, to be 20 and ambitious again. Now when the TV remote falls on the floor in front of my chair that’s just too far away for me to bother with.

Dean slips through the military guard at the Spokane border and begins a bizarre journey that had me putting the book down several times. Books don’t often make me uneasy or make me look over my shoulder but I had to put this book down a couple of times. Dean walks through an abandoned hotel looking for pictures to take. He looks into one room and sees a man embedded in the ceiling, the man’s arm reaching down to a prone woman on the floor. The man hasn’t fallen through the ceiling but has somehow fused with it.

Wolves that don’t move like normal canines roam in enormous packs. Huge spiders pour through a wall that has a face with blinking eyes sticking out of it. The internet and radio are jammed so information about what is happening in Spokane is a mixture of rumors, fictions and truths. No one but the people who refused to evacuate the city know what’s really going on. Dean joins a group of misfits headed up by a mysterious beauty named Taylor who is using a teenaged computer hacker to get the story out of Spokane. Is something really happening or is it all just a hallucination?

This is a gem of a book that was brought to my attention by a co-worker (thanks, Carol). I’m that creepy girl who likes creepy things and Bad Glass is on my top ten list of creepy books. Read it. But stay away from Spokane and any walls that might have human limbs sprouting from them.

Jennifer

One Last Thing Before I Go

Drew Silver, the protagonist of One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper, is a screw up. His ex-wife thinks so. His 18-year-old daughter thinks so. The other divorced men he’s friends with think so. I thought he was kind of a screw up, too. He’s an endearing screw-up, if that makes any sense.

Silver was in a rock band 15 years ago that produced a mega one hit wonder. Now he lives in The Versailles, a run down apartment building where divorced and depressed men go after leaving their families. He still plays the drums at weddings, bat mitzvahs, and sweet 16 birthday parties. Sometimes he’s recognized (Hey, you were in that band that had that song!) but he mostly lives a dull existence. Sometimes he goes home with one of the back-up singers in the wedding band. Most of the time he goes home alone.

He has no relationship with his daughter Casey, having kind of given up being a father after realizing he’s complete crap at it. He still loves his ex-wife Denise. She still hates him.

One day while hanging out by the pool at The Versailles, Silver’s daughter Casey drops a bomb on him: she’s pregnant. He doesn’t understand why she’s come to him when he’s been an absent father all her life. Maybe she’s giving him a chance to redeem himself. She’s about to head to college in the fall and Baby on Board is not what she had planned. She wants him to take her to get an abortion. Casey refuses to tell her mother mainly because Denise is getting remarried in a couple of weeks and is in full Bride Mode: she can’t see anything unless it’s about her wedding.

Silver and Casey are in the waiting room of the abortion clinic when Silver’s life really goes down the tubes. He blacks out. He thinks he’s died. He can hear his daughter’s voice shouting at him as he fades away. She hasn’t sounded that scared since she was a child. He wakes up in the hospital and is told that he has to have heart surgery to repair a defect or he will die. The doctor who wants to perform the surgery? His ex-wife’s fiancé. Awkward.

Silver decides against the surgery which almost made me stop reading until I understood why he decides against it. He thinks he’s a piece of…work, if you get my drift. He believes he’s no good to anyone and no one wants him around so death is a better option than hanging around The Versailles for the next 40 years where the college girls around the pool never age but the heartbroken men who live there do.

Silver doesn’t seem to understand a few things: his daughter wants him around. His parents want him around. Denise wants him around. Even her fiancé the surgeon wants him around (he’s one of those obnoxious people who sees the good in everyone). But Silver is adamant that he’d rather die.

But he seems to have forgotten how persuasive families can be. He gets in a fist fight with his brother because his brother wants him to have the surgery. His rabbi father goes Old Testament on him to try to change his mind. His mother pulls the ultimate Mom Card of “I’m very disappointed in you.”

And you know where this is going, right? I’m not ruining anything here. You kind of know he’s going to have the surgery. Although there were a few pages there I thought “This guy’s actually going to die on purpose”.  By the end of the book he finally sees the light (and no, it’s not the Other Side) and finds out what he has to live for.

If I took anything away from this book (besides laughing my head off because Jonathan Tropper is one funny dude) it’s the simple and sappy message of let people love you. That’s it. Those that care if you breathe or not are the most important ones and you have to let them care if you breathe or not. And let’s face it, when we feel at our most unlovable, that’s when people come swooping in with their wonderfully annoying unconditional love.

Jennifer