Erotica (shhh!)

Erotica is something that we don’t discuss so much in American culture, certainly don’t talk about as part of our current reading list. Yet books like Fifty Shades of Grey top the bestseller lists and romance novels, a staple of American reading, include more and more erotic content. So we may not admit to it, but we certainly do read it.

Therefore in perpetuum let me openly proclaim, I read erotic novels. Sometimes they’re great, sometimes I laugh openly and immediately dispose of them. But, on occasion, I do read (shhh!) erotic books.

Typically I don’t write negative reviews in this blog as I want to encourage people to read, and I realize that people have different tastes, interests and so on, but for today’s lesson we will delve into the dark side of criticism. As with any book, quality of writing is important, and there are perhaps more poorly-written erotic books than there are in other genres. Fifty Shades of Grey sold like wildfire, so obviously many people loved it. I too read this title to see what all the hubbub was about. Well. Let me tell you a thing or two about this particular word salad. It’s one of the most poorly-written books I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not even mildly erotic. The attempted eroticism is laughable. Ha ha!

Now the only reason I bring this book up is to have a sort of base line with which to compare other books. I fully support anyone who enjoyed this book because one of the important things about reading is to have fun. However, I am going to stand by my earlier assertions. So let’s look at some other erotic literature in the library and see how it compares to this recent bestseller.

FermataThe Fermata by Nicholson Baker
The Fermata employs an extremely literate writing style enjoyable perhaps to the readers of Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides or Yann Martel. As with anything sexual in nature, the story certainly has the ability to offend, but this is on the kind and gentle end of the spectrum. The story tells of a man who is able to freeze time, and, as one might suspect, he uses this ability to take advantage of women, although only by undressing them. What makes the character interesting is that he is not a drooling pervert but a sensitive, caring person with a sort of moral code that he imposes on his interactions with the frozen women. The erotic content of this book is more titillating or sensual than overtly sexual.

Jane EyroticaJane Eyrotica by Charlotte Brontë and Karena Rose
A somewhat popular literary trend of recent years is the literary remix. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem!, The Meowmorphosis and Zombie Island are just a few examples of classic literature updated in an absurd, nearly surreal manner. The best of these feature seamless rewrites, the style of the modern author matching perfectly that of Austen, Kafka and Shakespeare. Jane Eyrotica is a rather racy remix of Brontë’s classic, rampant with bosom heaving, Victorian innuendo, bondage and somewhat explicit carnal activities. Although the story is changed a bit (Jane being 16 rather than 10) to accommodate the subject matter, this is a well-written book, classic yet sexual, and a far cry above the quality of Fifty Shades. For a quick taste, witness Jane’s reaction when looking at a photograph of an attractive man:

“Upon first seeing [his eyes], I had felt a jolt of pleasure beneath my petticoat;”

A fairly tame observation, Victorian in its naiveté, but merely an aperitif of what is to come.

Twilight GirlsTwilight Girls by Paula Christian
Both an example of 1950’s pulp fiction and vintage erotica, Twilight Girls is an early lesbian romance. The book contains two novelettes about a stewardess called Mac who is tired of men’s advances and one night stands. After finding herself confused and attracted to another stewardess, Toni, she transfers to a faraway state and tries to put her feelings for Toni behind her. Without giving too much of the story away, this is a book about a relationship (which just happens to be lesbian) peppered with tawdry and sordid encounters as the characters come to terms with their true natures. Although pulp by definition is not high-quality writing, this tale is still head-and-shoulders above Fifty Shades.

Finally, here are a few mainstream romance authors who include healthy doses of eroticism in their books.

Sylvia Day

Sylvia DayJulie Kenner

Julie Kenner

Maya Banks

Maya Banks

So what have we learned today? Erotica comes in many shapes and sizes. Read it proudly, read it discerningly, but most importantly, don’t forget your petticoat.

When History Splashes Off the Page

You may recall I gave myself a list of reading challenges for 2014. They are all self-imposed and they all just randomly fell out of my brain one day in a burst of madness inspiration. Whether this is the first you’re hearing of my reading resolutions or you just want to review, here is the list of my reading inspirations:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular (see below)
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

Up until now I thought of this list as only a clever way for me to have some ready-made books to blog about. However, I really didn’t expect anything mind-blowing to result. Then I decided to tackle number five, the super-popular designation. And guys, I finished reading this book three weeks ago. Three weeks ago. I have been unable to pick up another book since. This book broke me. I am stuck in a rut, afraid to pick up another book because it’s really not fair to that book to have to follow behind one so good as this one.

The boys in the boatUnless you’ve been living under a rock, or just not in the Pacific Northwest, everyone has been buzzing about The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. The library first bought the book last June and I don’t think we’ve ever been successful at keeping a single copy on the shelf. As of this writing there are still twenty-two outstanding holds across all formats. I was lucky enough to snag an eBook copy. Pro tip: if you need a popular book quickly, the holds queues for eBooks tend to be far shorter than physical print copies.

So there I was: sitting curled up on the couch, Saturday morning, fresh-brewed coffee in hand. This was back before that big summer heat wave hit Seattle. It was just me and the title screen on my Kindle. I had no idea what was about to happen, how truly involved in this story I would become. I ended up creating countless highlights in my eBook of passages I thought embodied a person, idea, or event. I didn’t count on how difficult it would be to retrieve said highlights later. So you’ll have to keep with me as I try to put into words how incredibly magnificent this book was, and still is.

Joe Rantz was born in Spokane in 1914. His childhood and early adulthood are detailed throughout the book, juxtaposed with great inventions of the time, and a healthy dose of local, federal, and world history. His father invented as a hobby, but it was never enough to pay the bills. When Joe was still quite young his mother died. His father, heartbroken and searching for work, moved all over the Northwest. Sometimes he took Joe; sometimes he left Joe behind; sometimes he shipped Joe out to a relative’s house. As a result, Joe had a severely unstable childhood but also became extremely self-reliant. Being left behind in a half-built house in the wilderness outside of Sequim, while your father packs up his new family and leaves for parts unknown will do that to you.

By the time he got to the University of Washington in 1933, Joe was always second-guessing his worth. Despite working hard, and during the Great Depression no less, to not only scrape together tuition money but also find a place to live, Joe never really saw his strengths. Joe was used to hard work, but he thought he would finally feel like he fit in with like-minded people in college. Instead his threadbare clothes and deep poverty made him feel like an outcast from the very start of his college career.

Eventually, Joe managed to work his way onto the UW crew team. Despite his aptitude, dedication, and stamina, he saw that his place on the team was not permanent and never guaranteed. Coaches swapped students around on different boats, trying to find the right combination of rowers. This boat-swapping, coupled with his childhood of abandonment put Joe constantly on edge, fearful that he would be let go from the team just when he was starting to feel at home. Knowing that staying on the crew team was his only chance to stay in college, and have a shot at a good future, Joe was constantly worried but always striving to be better.

Over his freshman and sophomore years, his boat had its ups and downs in competitions and teammate personality conflicts. But it wasn’t until his junior year that his teammates became as close as family. In 1932 UW’s west coast rowing rivals, UC “Cal” Berkeley, had won Olympic gold. Entering the 1935 rowing season, everyone at both UW and Cal knew that their coach would be pushing them to fight for the chance at the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. And any team competing against Germany on their home turf during an oppressive time would, if they could win it…well, do I need to go on?

The Dust Bowl. Nazis. The Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power. All of this is set against our group of farm boys, working hard on the waters of Lake Washington. This is a true underdog story, one made more inspirational because every word of it is true. Pay special attention to the quotes from George Yeoman Pocock at the start of each chapter. He handcrafted all the racing shells at UW during Joe’s tenure, and he was wise beyond his years. I would love to read more about him and his equally humble beginnings and incredible life.

I really did not think I would like The Boys in the Boat, but was curious how a book about rowing could become so popular. I told my dentist I was going to read this book. He, an avid fisherman and happiest, I suspect, when he’s on the open water, said that it was also on his list to read this summer. I feel like I did us both proud. Look at me, reading a book about sports! But it’s so much more than that. If you, too, decide to give it a chance, prepare to be swept away at forty-five strokes per minute. Now that I’ve written this review I hope it releases me from the spell cast by Daniel James Brown. I’m going to crack open a new book tonight and test my theory.

In case you’re wondering, and lest us always remember, the boys in the boat:
Left to right: Don Hume, Joe Rantz, George “Shorty” Hunt, Jim “Stub” McMillin, John “Johnny” White Jr., Gordon “Gordy” Adam, Chuck Day, Roger Morris. Kneeling: Bobby Moch

1936 UW Varsity Crew Team

Must Reads for Summer 2014

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There are good and bad things about working in a library. The good: all of the great books that you discover and get to read. The bad: all of the great books that you don’t have time to read. We all have excuses and these are mine: full-time work and a toddler who just turned two years old and a baby who is ten months old. Oh yeah, and a house and garden and that guy I married 33 years ago. So, I often feel like that funny old bird the pelican whose beak holds more than his belly can. I have a beak full of great reads these days which may interest you if you’re participating in the summer reading program at the Everett Public Library or if you’re lucky enough to be planning a vacation and need a good book to take along. This list has a little bit of everything so there may be just the right book for you. Let’s start with non-fiction.

indexCA1ADCTLFlash Boys: a Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis is on my list since I read Boomerang and I thought that it was the bomb. This guy also wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side and other excellent books. It reads like a John Grisham novel, but it’s a true story about stock exchanges, high frequency traders, and dark pools. The author is great at explaining complicated technical subjects and telling a good story around them. I want to read it!

indexCA63IMS4Leonardo and the Last Supper has been by my bedside for a few weeks now. It’s excellent! I was an art history major in college and I’ve learned so much more from this book about the creation of this Renaissance masterpiece. Mr. King has managed to focus on a particular theme and give the reader as much information as needed to really understand it. Another of his earlier books accomplished the same thing, Brunelleschi’s Dome, which I can also recommend.

indexCAAEEVC8The President and the Assassin: McKinley, terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century is a great book (obvious from the first chapter) by Seattle author, Scott Miller. He creates a portrait of turn of the century America going back and forth between an under-appreciated president, William McKinley and his anarchist assassin, Leon Czolgosz. This was a time when the powerful were growing more powerful and desperate men turned to terrorism. Sound familiar?

And now for some fiction:

index (16)I have to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because my daughter heard her give a talk recently in Copenhagen and apparently it’s wonderful. The author takes on immigration, race, and what it means to leave home and to return, all wrapped up in a love story. Adichie has also written Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. The first chapter alone is marvelous. Let’s all get with it and read this one.

indexCAZNZBA7The Care of Wooden Floors by Will WIles was recommended to me by two co-workers so I checked it out and my husband read it while we were on vacation. Even though I couldn’t read it, he confirmed that it is funny and interesting and a good book.  It’s an odd couple story of a fellow who house sits for a composer friend. He accidentally spills wine on the apartment’s priceless wooden floor and endures a disastrous week of perfectionist repair and maintenance.

index (1)Delicious! is by Ruth Reichl. I’ve read all of her memoirs from Garlic and Sapphires to Tender at the Bone. This is her first attempt at fiction and she certainly writes about what she knows: the heroine is a woman who works for a venerable food magazine that suddenly ceases publication. It looks like a pretty fun and fast read, and if you’re looking for a souffle-type novel, you could do worse! Plus, the cover is lovely.

indexBroken Harbor is Tana French’s new ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ crime novel and it’s supposed to be every bit as brilliant as her three earlier books featuring that tough cop, Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy. This is a murder story which seems easy to solve at first until the details don’t add up. Read this one to get the atmosphere of an Ireland hit hard by the recession, an idea of police procedure and to become engrossed in a well written who dunnit.

index (1)The Possibilities is written by Kaui Hart Hemmings who also wrote The Descendants. You’ll remember that movie with George Clooney. This new book follows a similar theme of family and loss and is set in the paradise of Breckenridge, Colorado. A single mom is grieving the loss of her son, Cully, in an avalanche when a strange girl shows up with a secret from Cully’s past.

indexThe Vacationers by Emma Straub  will take you all the way to the beaches of Spain, where a family’s dramas are set against the beautiful background of a lush vacation. It will leave you feeling like you were just on a family trip — laughing, exhausted and filled with love.

So, check out one of these books to take on your next vacation or simply read one for a great ‘staycation’. Either way, enjoy!

Adult Summer Reading Reviews

We are nearing the mid-way point for the Literary Elements Adult Summer Reading Challenge. Many of you have signed up and received lots of great prizes. Some of you have gone out of your way to share reviews of books that you have been reading this summer. It was hard to choose, but a few selected reviews are shown below from the ones we have received so far. Thanks to all for participating and sharing your reviews with us!

An Inquiry into Love and Death by Simone St. James (Reviewed by Patricia R.)

inquiryintoloveanddeathAs a dedicated reader of fiction– Mysteries and Sci-Fi Fantasy–for over 65 years, this book surpassed anything I have ever heard of or read. From the first page to the last, it is a slow builder of suspense! And yes,fear! This is my first encounter with Gothic, though it is not the gory horror stories that make one ill. Ms. St. James has welded together Gothic, Mystery, and Romance with such great skill that the reader should not be surprised if she experiences goose bumps in the final chapters. Location is England in the early 1900’s, shortly after WW1, in a remote village. Ms. St. James writings are filled with spine-tingling, terrifying characters, but, there is also the beautiful romance with a Scotland Yard Inspector and the discovery of Jillian’s family history. I would share with you that this story is so compelling and intense that I would not choose to read this at night before bed. In some ways, a wonderful, old-fashioned ghost story! Her three books have been reviewed and listed on the NY Times Best Seller List with the 4th one to be released in April, 2015.

The Way of All Fish by Martha Grimes (Reviewed by Cathleen V.)

wayofallfishContract killers who take jobs on the condition that they can decide for themselves whether or not the target is worthy of elimination is an intriguing idea. Even though the inside flap of this novel gives the impression that the hit men are the focus of the tale, there are a large number of other characters who are part of the detailed schemes in this book. Some of the characters have talents, skills, hobbies, and occupations that could make them worthy of novels of their own. The twists, devious manipulations, and humor kept me reading through the points in the story which seemed slow or less relevant to the plot, even a few places where I was not certain I wished to continue on reading. I would say this is all right as one of my first reads of the summer. It requires some attention to keep track of several characters and storylines but is not so challenging that it is frustrating.

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller (Reviewed by Cynthia W.)

animalspiritsI like to be reading a novel and a non-fiction book at all times. I have lots of opportunities to share good novels with friends and co-workers but I really value this forum to share an occasional non-fiction book. I just finished reading Animal Spirits, a look at classical economic theory and Keynesian theory in light of our questions regarding the recent behavior of our world economy. I have no training in economics so I was a bit nervous but also encouraged by the funny artwork on the cover and the mention of human psychology in the subtitle. The authors, George Akerlof and Robert Schiller, are economists whose names I have seen and heard in the news. While their collaborative style of writing is not graceful or very engaging, it is also not academic or difficult to understand for readers with a good all-round education in other fields. In fact, there is humor to be found in these pages. Beginning with a brief over-view of the work of Adam Smith and his most influential successor John Maynard Keynes, the authors point out the strengths and weaknesses of both theories as they have historically been applied to policy decisions. The “animal spirits” element of Keynes’ analysis, largely ignored by economists since his time, are explained as elements of non-rational human psychology that influence financial and economic decision-making. Since most decisions are made by people who are not following a theoretical ideology but are attempting to make the right decisions for themselves and their society, human psychology plays a greater role than previously acknowledged by theoreticians and scholars. The human considerations examined here are confidence, fairness, corruption and bad faith, money illusion (a new concept for me) and the human propensity to create a narrative story around our lives and circumstances. The effects that these considerations have on individual decisions, relationships and political discussion are easy to see in the world right now. In part 2 the book attempts to answer questions that depend on the economic concepts and human psychology presented in part 1. Questions like “Why do economies fall into depressions?” (lots of history in this one regarding both the US depression of the 1890’s and the Great Depression of the 1930’s that effected the whole world,) “Why are there people who cannot find a job?” (surprisingly, classical theory and the stripped-down version of Keynesian theory do not recognize the existence of involuntary unemployment,) “Why is saving for the future so arbitrary?” (including individual and cultural influences on decisions to save or spend,) and “Why do real estate markets go through cycles?” Animal Spirits is only 177 pages long but I would not call it an easy read. Neither is it too difficult. The insight into the current economic environment gained from this treatise ( the authors do espouse the view that government has a legitimate and vital role to play in economic health and stability) is well worth the effort. I feel more prepared to engage in discussion with the tools to express my own viewpoint and values and without rancor or accusation.

NOS4A2

silverlakeWhen I was a little girl my family would spend nearly every day at Silver Lake. To a 7-year-old this place was paradise. It had sand, a lifeguard in a tower who always seemed as still as a statue, a park to play in when you got sick of swimming, and some days there was a cart that sold snow-cones and hot dogs.

My mom usually took us on weekends but she was a single woman raising 3 kids on her own. Sometimes we had a baby sitter. And one day that baby sitter decided we were going to swim on the other side of the lake because he wanted to smoke a substance that is now legal in the state of Washington but 25 years ago wasn’t. To be honest, this part of the lake SUCKED. Long grass and weeds choked the water line. We had to leave our shoes on because of all the sharp rocks and broken glass in the water.

To this day I suspect there was some kind of water monster hiding in the darkest depths waiting to pull me under. I had just seen the movie Piranha. I’m pretty sure those little cannibals were down there. I’d get waist deep and stare at the crowds on the other side: people lying back on their towels, snoozing in the sun, kids enjoying the sand squishing between their toes. They didn’t have to worry about tetanus shots. The Other Side, as I called it, was not magical and wondrous. It was a dark place where even the sun couldn’t cut through the tops of the trees.

nos4a2In Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, young Vic McQueen is able to travel to other places on her bike. When she gets on her Raleigh Tuff Burner and starts peddling a bridge opens up, the Shorter Way Bridge, one that others can’t see. Throughout her childhood and into her teens she peddles across the bridge and visits people. One of them is a tiny wisp of a woman named Maggie who is a librarian in Here, Ohio. Her talent is like Vic’s but she reads scrabble letters to tell the future. She sees a dark future for Vic, a dangerous and dark future.

Enter Charles Talent Max who has been stealing children for years. He takes them to a place called Christmasland where…well, it’s Christmas all the time. It would be my personal hell to live there, especially since they now start playing Christmas music in stores mid-August. Manx is like a vampire, sucking the life out of children by promising them Christmas fun 24/7.

One day after a nasty fight with her mother, 17-year-old Vic hops on her bike and finds the Shorter Way Bridge (or it finds her). She peddles and peddles until she comes to a house with a kick ass 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith. I had to google an image of the car. It is indeed kick ass. I think I would get into a car like this driven by a stranger without even being promised any candy or kittens who smell like sleepy mornings and day dreams.

Vic sees a child in the back seat and knows the kid is in danger. Once Vic gets closer to the car she sees that the child’s face is warping and displaying row upon row of sharp teeth. She runs into the house where Manx’s assistant, a sad rhyming idiot, tries to gas her into submission. Vic fights him off and somehow burns the house down. A big dude on a motorcycle is passing by the house when she runs screaming out into the street. He stops, she hops on and we meet Lou who instantly falls in love with Vic (because really, you kind of have to fall in love with someone who is running towards you with a backdrop of a burning house). She escapes but Manx is still out there.

Fast-forward 15 years. Vic has been in and out of rehab, is covered in tattoos and doesn’t get to see the child she and Lou had years ago. She gets sober and wants to start her life right. She wants her son Wayne to spend the summer with her. She’s nervous as hell because she doesn’t really know him and he’s scared because he doesn’t know her. They’re slowly getting to know one another when BAM! There’s Charles Manx in his Wraith taking off with Wayne. Vic’s job is to hunt Manx down and end him.

I read my first Joe Hill novel a few years ago. I looked him up because his writing was so familiar that I felt something tugging at me. Let’s call it the “I know you, don’t I?” tug. Turns out Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son. No wonder the writing seemed familiar. But Joe Hill’s writing stands on its own. His characters are people I think about during the day. You know you’ve made an impact on someone when they sit at their desk and think “I wonder what Vic’s doing right now?”

Devour this novel. Eat it up until there isn’t anything left. Root for the wayward mother doing any and everything to save her child.

I have to go. The Wraith has pulled up in front of my house and it looks like it needs a driver.

Heartwood 4:3 – Colonel Chabert by Balzac

Colonel ChabertThe Colonel at the center of this novella by Balzac was left for dead and buried in a mass grave during the Napoleonic battle at Eylau. After miraculously digging himself out and being ever-so-slowly nursed back to health by a farmer couple, he returns to Paris where he discovers that his wife has remarried, and that she treats the news of his survival as the scheme of an imposter and would-be usurper of her (his) fortune. Chabert is penniless, physically disfigured, and ridiculed by those who hear him tell of his battlefield experience. He convinces a lawyer to take his case in the fight to restore his name and fortune, but his dignity and honor are no match for human avarice and callous disregard.

This powerful moral tale, told in Balzac’s capable yarn-spinning style, contains some of the darkest views of humanity to be found anywhere in his multivolume The Human Comedy. That the human condition has not improved since then can be readily confirmed by a casual glance at the daily newspaper. The book ends with the last encounter between the destitute and raving Chabert and his lawyer, Derville, who gives Chabert some alms and afterward tells an associate that he is leaving the practice of law and bitterly condemns the egregious behavior he has seen throughout his career, the multitude of “crimes that justice is powerless to rectify.”

I picked up Colonel Chabert after reading about it at length in Javier Marías’s recently translated book The Infatuations – a novel that opens with a shocking murder and is deeply concerned with questions of desire, moral erosion and the slippery slope of rationalized self-interest. The Infatuations also features some beautiful writing about grief. I encourage you to read both.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

The Hit by Melvin Burgess

Oh God, I hope my mom doesn’t read this. Usually she’s busy being retired and teaching our dog tricks. Don’t read this, Mom. I’ll give you $5 not to read this. I think the dog pooped in the hallway. You better go check that situation out. I don’t think you want to hear that the only reason your kid doesn’t do drugs is because she’s too lazy to go find them.

I don’t do drugs. I don’t avoid them because they’re bad for me and will lead my life down a path of ruin and eventual death. I don’t do drugs because I have no idea where I would get them and I’m too lazy to seek them out. The hardest drug I do is Benadryl. And caffeine.

thehitMelvin Burgess’s The Hit is about a drug unlike any other. It’s called Death and it’s in high demand. You swallow it and have 7 days to live, but those 7 days are the best days you could ever hope for. You wake up euphoric, a burst of energy unlike any high you’ve ever felt. Any dream you’ve had, whatever you wanted to become in life, you pursue it with passion (instead of what I do which is ‘I think I want to write a book except my favorite episode of American Dad is on and I’ve only seen it 17 times.’)

Adam comes from a poor family. His dad is disabled and unable to work and his mom works so many shifts that all she can do when she gets home is sleep. His brother Jess, a chemist, hasn’t been heard from in days. England is on the edge of anarchy, goaded on by a terrorist group known as the Zealots who want to bring down the capitalist regime. Adam’s girlfriend Lizzie comes from money and it’s the same old story: boy from the wrong side of the tracks and the rich girl falling in love. Adam doesn’t think his life is going to get any better. He’s going to have to drop out of school and find a job.

He takes Lizzie on a date to see their favorite rock star Jimmy Earle who caps his performance by saying he’d taken Death 7 days before. At the end of the concert, Jimmy Earle drops dead on stage. A near riot ensues on the streets of Manchester. Crowds of people caught up in the fervor of bringing down the government clog the streets. Someone is handing out Death. Adam and Lizzie watch people pop the drug into their mouths. Someone hands Adam Death. He pockets it. It had been the perfect night.

The next day Adam and his parents receive a letter from the Zealots saying his brother Jess has been killed. Jess was working for the Zealots as a chemist, manufacturing Death. His parents are horrified and Adam sinks into a depression. What does his life mean now? He’ll have to quit school and take some crap job and live a crap life. There will be no university. In his despair he swallows the Death he’d pocketed the night before and begins his own countdown. He makes a bucket list for the next 7 days:

1. Loads of sex with loads of girls. Several of them at once.
2. Get rich. Leave my parents and Lizzie with enough money so they’ll never have to work again.
3. Drink champagne till I can’t stand.
4. Do cocaine.
5. Do something so that humanity will remember me forever.

Yeah, that first to-do is definitely a teenage boy’s top priority.

Mixed in with the Zealots is a gangster. Isn’t there always a bad dude in the midst of everything: one hand out for cash in exchange for a bad deed, the other hand holding a machete? This gangster (sorry, entrepreneur ) is named Florence Ballantine and he has a psychotic 46-year-old son Christian who thinks he’s fourteen. Christian wears a baseball cap with the bill flipped to the side, baggy jeans, expensive t-shirts and has a bodyguard named Vince who likes to put his anti-psychotic medicine in a glass of milk. This father and son team manufacture Death. Who cares that it causes people to expire in 7 days? There’s money to be made.

Adam and Lizzie trip through the criminal underworld and get caught up in a race to accomplish everything on Adam’s bucket list all the while counting down the days and hours. While Adam is trying to make the first to-do on his bucket list happen, Christian sees Lizzie at a party and demands that she be his new girlfriend. Nobody wants to be his girlfriend because the dude’s brain is fried. And he’s terrifying.

Is Adam brave enough (or dumb enough) to take on the Zealots, Florence the gangster and his cuckoo for cocoa puffs son? Does Lizzie love him enough to survive a week of knowing he’s going to die? Why was Jess so secretive about what he was working on for the Zealots? Wait until you read the ending. I did not see it coming.

If I Could Turn Back Time

counterclockwiseExcuse me for inviting you to buy into our youth-obsessed cultural stereotypes, but have you ever wanted to look, feel, or actually be younger? Turns out all of these are possible, although the last may only happen if you lie about your age. Also, they take a lot of work, maybe more than you’re willing to do. Counter Clockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging by Lauren Kessler will take you along on one woman’s journey to reacquire youthfulness.

The author investigates and personally tries many ways to remain young, some of them expected and some quite surprising or relatively unknown. Of course many of the things she does are behaviors you’ve always been told will keep you healthy: eating unprocessed food, consuming more fruits and vegetables and, of course, exercise. Turns out these will also keep your body young. The goal is to keep your body healthy into old age and then suddenly die quickly, ideally in your sleep (and in bed with your much younger lover). Warning: don’t do it because Madison Avenue tells you to, do it because you want to be healthy.

Kessler learns about many different philosophies of eating with the goal of keeping you young for as long as possible. These include the idea of eating fewer calories than necessary-that is, semi-starving yourself for life. In studies, this practice has been shown to maintain the health and increase the longevity of rodents, but no studies have been done on humans. Guess they can’t find volunteers to be hungry the rest of their lives. No one would want to be around them, they’d always be so crabby.

She speaks with experts about the various food-specific diets that have you eat or avoid certain things. We also visit the big world of supplements. A lot of it seems natural, altruistic (they only want to make you feel better) and kind of hippie-granola-crunchy, but it is a big business with very little oversight.

And we can’t forget detoxification. Apparently we all need to do it, according to the popular press. The scientific community thinks it’s a load of bunk, and questions what it means and whether it is an effective or healthy activity.

Spoiler alert (but not really): Kessler finds that the things that work best to keep you young also keep you healthy and are the things your mother nagged you to do (or she should have). Don’t eat junk food! Get off the couch and get some exercise! Don’t let the TV turn you into a zombie (for real-brain activity and positive thinking can help keep you young and healthy)! Now go call your mom and thank her.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

a long way downMy co-worker Leslie recently wrote a post about books that are going to be made into movies. Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down is one of them. He’s also the author of About a Boy and High Fidelity. Hey, both of those are movies too.

It all starts on New Year’s Eve when four very different people climb onto a roof to commit suicide. Suicide is a solitary job. You want to be left alone with your thoughts, which is ironic since your thoughts are what make you want to commit suicide. Group suicide is for Jim Jones and those Heaven’s Gates people. .

Martin is a washed up talk show host (think Good Morning America but British) who spent time in prison for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. His career is dead. He’s now the host of a local TV station that is viewed by maybe 30 people. His ex-wife won’t let him see his daughters. He doesn’t want to see them either because he feels like a washed-up loser. He decides he’s done with his life and climbs on top of a roof that’s known for jumpers when he’s interrupted by a fellow would-be jumper.

Jess is a mess. Not even a hot mess because being a hot mess implies you were something grand and slightly astonishing at one point and now there’s nothing left but a glimmer of that. Jess’s dad is an education minister (for some reason I see a preacher in a church throwing literature books at people) and she finds ways of embarrassing him and her mother on a daily basis. Her older sister Jen went missing. Jen didn’t leave a note or any clues as to where she went. Jess’s parents thinks Jen is dead and they go about their lives as if this is common knowledge and they rarely say her name. Jess is wonderfully foul-mouthed, hopped up on drugs and Bacardi Breezers and still chasing after the boy who dumped her. He is the reason why she wants to jump off a building.

JJ is an American musician whose band was starting to get a following when they decided to call it quits. He had a girlfriend, a promising music career and then nothing. The music came to a grinding halt, his girlfriend left him and then he and his best friend parted ways. He’d gone from touring cities with his band to being a pizza delivery boy and decided he’d kill himself on New Year’s Eve.

Maureen is in her 50’s and has a severely handicapped son. She’s sheltered and lonely and shy. As much as she loves her son Matty, she can’t do it anymore. She can’t stand to see the days, weeks, months, and years stretch out in front of her, caring for her child who is a vegetable. She decides to climb to the top of a building and jump.

All four of them find themselves at a loss up on the roof. Nobody wants to be the first jumper, let alone commit the act in front of strangers. They start to talk. Not the kind of “Someone Saved My Life tonight” kind of talk. More like “Why are you jumping?.” And each of them try to out-do one another: “My story’s worse than yours.”

The four of them climb down from the roof and go for a drink. They make a pact that if they still feel like killing themselves in 6 weeks’ time they will go through with it.

Little by little they worm their way into each other’s lives-sometimes not in a good way. Jess is a foul-mouthed brat who says anything that comes to mind. If she doesn’t like you, she’ll let you know. And then some. She’s the character I love. And hate. Martin is still a jerk that goes between knowing he’s a loser and thinking he’s still TV royalty. Maureen is terrified of the world and has never been on a proper vacation. JJ is living in the past, getting embarrassed and delighted when people recognize him from “that band.” What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless.

What drew me in deeper into this novel was the fact that Martin, Jess, JJ, and Maureen weren’t trying to save each other’s lives by putting suicide on hold. It was more of “Let’s go get a drink or nine, play ‘My life sucks more than yours ever could,’ and see what happens tomorrow.” Not once does this book get preachy or anti-suicide.

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic whether it’s talked about or not. A Long Way Down smashes that uneasiness and says it with honesty: people think about killing themselves. The thought bubbles up and most times it goes away. In the end, Martin, Jess, JJ, and Maureen don’t become best friends and vacation in Maui. But they do go through something that connects them.

Nick Hornby is a hilarious writer and he deals with a subject that makes a lot of people cringe. Since I like books about people who are (or seem) more messed up than me this was the perfect book. 

I haven’t gone looking for a roof to jump off in three days.

Getting Graphic

We’re heading steadily through March, and I have to say I’m a wee bit proud of myself for continuing to work through my only New Years resolution this year. If you’re a regular reader, you may recall my self-imposed reading challenge which was designed to stretch my mind and read outside of my comfort zone.

Here’s a quick rundown of my 2014 Reading Resolutions:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel (see below)
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

You’ll kindly overlook the fact that I’m skipping around on my list. Sure, it would have been more organized to tackle these in list order, but it turns out I can’t quite ignore that little voice inside my head that still wants to rebel against prescribed reading–even if I am the person who came up with the guidelines! The only way to drown out the voices is to read what I’m in the mood to read. And this month I decided to get graphic.

I’ve always gotten a bit lost trying to read graphic novels. My brain can’t stop looking around at all the images, and comparing and contrasting what I see with what my brain is trying to imagine on its own. Rogue brain. Be silent!

PrestoEnough of my neuroses. Let’s talk about Bandette. Presto! is the first book in the Bandette series by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. Bandette is a teenage thief who calls Paris home. I like to refer to her as a modern-day Nancy Drew meets Robin Hood meets Sherlock Holmes. She always dons her costume, complete with cape and mask, before venturing out to clean up the streets, thwarting the criminal underworld as well as the local police inspector, Belgique. She has a weakness for first editions–her personal library is split between the books she’s purchased with her own money and books she has “liberated,” also known as stolen. And her skills as a thief are only matched by her quick wit and unique sense of humor. Bandette may not take the world so seriously, but is that due to her age or her occupation? Take this line, for example. She’s in the thick of battle and still manages to quip:

Hush, Matadori! The air is already thick with bullets. Do not overcrowd it with drama as well.

Presto! combines the first five issues of the Monkeybrain comic book series Bandette. And while I hadn’t read them until I happened upon this tome in our Young Adult graphic novel collection, I am hesitant to read any more until the next bound volume is published. For one thing, it will build anticipation. It will also allow me to work on other reading challenges in my list. And honestly, reading them bound together with all the little extras in the back (including author interviews and a behind-the-scenes look at the process of writing, drawing, and coloring the comic) is in and of itself a beautiful thing I’d miss out on.

When I started reading Presto!, which can be easily consumed in an afternoon, I knew I would need to take notes on my reading experience for the blog. Here are my reactions, perceptions, and ideas that I recorded during my introduction to Bandette. You can click on each image to make it larger and easier to read.

Notes1 Notes2

Since it’s past my deadline (Bandette wouldn’t follow any but her own deadlines!) I’ll let my handwritten notes above speak for me. You can also take my husband’s word for it, as he devoured Presto! the night I brought it home to read and nagged me about it until I had time to read it myself. I even purchased my own copy, knowing I will re-read it in the future.

Overall I’ve come out of this third reading challenge with a better appreciation for the illustrated novel and a definite plan for Halloween. I’ve also got what I would call a new literary best friend. Bandette, I can’t wait until we meet again in volume two.