For Better or For Worse

Once upon a time there was love and passion. When passion’s embers were banked and didn’t burn so intensely there was still love. And familiarity. 27 years of marriage witnessed both tenderness and dismay, the dismay being a wet towel left on the bathroom floor, the tenderness in caring for someone who ate bad shrimp. A good marriage is fluent in short hand and silences. A good marriage is being able to unbutton your jeans after pizza and beer. A good marriage is listening to an untalented spouse sing in the shower every morning and not flushing the toilet on them. A good marriage is gentle support: please don’t eat that candy all the time. I want to make sure you’re around for years to come. Even when you find out I’ve killed 12 women.

fulldarkA Good Marriage is from Stephen King’s novella collection Full Dark, No Stars. I’m writing about it because 1) I forgot I read it five years ago and 2) it’s the only novel from Full Dark, No Stars that I remember, mostly because I read it again last week.

Stephen King said that A Good Marriage is loosely based on serial killer Dennis Rader, the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer who slaughtered ten people and then quit killing for years. King wrote the novel after hearing about Rader’s wife of 34 years getting harassed by people who believed she knew what her husband was doing.

Bobby and Darcy Anderson have been married 27 years and have two grown children: Donnie, who’s getting his first business up and running and is becoming a success and Petra who is planning her wedding. Bobby is an accountant and a numismatist (I had to look up the word because it sounds like something a drunk person would try to say while concentrating very hard. It means someone who collects currency like old and rare coins). Bobby’s been obsessed with finding a rare Wheat Penny, the Holy Grail of coins.

Darcy finds one online and wants to buy it for him but he says no because he wants to find the rare penny randomly, mixed in with his change after eating at a restaurant or buying a cup of coffee. He wants fate to bring the penny to him. Bobby’s passion is Darcy’s passion. Darcy runs a small business out of their home selling memorabilia and coins. Like most coin enthusiasts, they’re continuously on the hunt for something rare, a coin that seems to be mostly myth and urban legend. But Bobby’s on an entirely different hunt. And has been for years.

Bobby often travels to smaller New England towns to fix the accounts of other businesses and to go to coin dealers and auctions. One evening when Darcy is home alone watching TV she tries to change the channel. The batteries in the remote are dead and of course there aren’t any in the junk drawer or anywhere else in the house. They’re all the way out in the garage. The garage is Bobby’s domain and the man is ultra OCD which is good for Darcy since she’s a little scattered. She finds the batteries in a neatly labeled drawer. When she goes to reach for them her knee hits a box and knocks it over.

Sitting on top of the box are stacks of mail-order catalogs. While flipping through them, she finds a magazine about bondage. At first she thinks it’s just one of those magazines that men are curious about, something along the line of Playboy but when she opens the magazine she sees it’s more than “exploration and curiosity”, it’s downright torture. Why would her Bobby have such a magazine around?

She tries to put it out of her mind and bends down to slide back the box she knocked over. She hears another sound. Getting down on her hands and knees she peers into the wall where there is a small hiding spot. A loose board has fallen over and she can see a small box inside. A little voice in Darcy’s head is telling her to leave it alone, put the piece of wood back, grab her batteries and go back into the house but instead she takes the box out and finds a driver’s license, library card and blood donor card all belonging to a woman who had been killed by the serial killer called Beadie.

Her entire being is reeling against the idea that the man she’s spent the last 27 years with, the man she thought she knew inside out, is a serial killer. She makes sure she puts everything back in the right way and goes back into the house. Darcy gets on the Internet and begins researching Beadie and his kills. With every article she reads, she gets sicker and sicker.

What would a good wife do? If it got out that her husband was Beadie there would be reporters camped out on their lawn, Donnie’s business would tank from the bad publicity and Petra, who idolizes her father, would be beyond heartbreak.  She can’t do that to her children. People would think she knew about it all along but kept her mouth shut. But 12 women have been mutilated and killed. It’s a good marriage. Can it still be a good marriage if she knows her husband is a serial killer but looks the other way?

Could you look the other way?

Mexico: The Cookbook

Mexico the cookbookEvery once in a while a book comes along that you just fall in love with. Right now I have stars in my eyes, and they only shine for Mexico: The Cookbook by chef Margarita Carrillo Arronte. Here is a book that speaks to almost all of my interests. At the very base level, it’s a beautiful volume. The hot pink dust jacket is decorated in traditional Mexican papel picado style, with intricate cutouts of sugar skulls and cross-stitch-like patterns. The covers of the book are a vibrant, glossy, neon orange – peeking through the cut-away artwork. The book has heft; a silky blue ribbon book mark drapes from the middle of 700+ pages of good quality paper stock.

All book nerd rhapsodizing aside about the loveliness of this bible of Mexican cuisine, the contents inside are equally delightful. Arronte, a well-respected advocate of traditional Mexican cooking, has compiled a cookbook that is a delightful blend of ethnography, culinary history, recipes, photography, and dictionary. The first section of the book is devoted to talking about traditional ingredients found in Mexican cooking, their significance, and the different regional variations. From there the book is broken down into sections dealing with different kinds of dishes: street food, salads and snacks, eggs (yes, there does need to be a whole section on eggs), soups, seafood, meat, vegetables, sauces, baked goods, drinks and desserts, and recipes from guest chefs.

Each recipe is listed first by its Spanish name, and then an English translation. Before getting into the process of cooking the dish, cooks are provided with the region that the dish is from, the ingredients list, the prep time, the cooking time, and how many servings the recipe prepares (all that’s lacking is a calorie estimate, but nobody is perfect). Sprinkled in among the many pages of recipes are a collection of gorgeous full color photos of selected dishes; there are also some wonderful shots of street scenes, ingredients, and people throughout the book. The instructional writing is very easy to follow. Aside from the challenge of sourcing some of the more obscure ingredients listed for some of the dishes, this book doesn’t require the user to be a very adventurous cook. That being said, this cook book probably isn’t a good fit for someone looking for quick meal ideas – many traditional Mexican recipes involve a lot of simmering, marinading, and letting flavors develop.

Mexico: The Cookbook concludes with a couple sections that will be dear to the hearts of librarians, foodies, and seekers of knowledge out there. There is a bibliography that allows the reader to dig deeper into the sources that the author used to craft her volume. There is a fantastic glossary to help cooks learn more about ingredients that are unfamiliar to them. Finally, there is a large index to help you find yummy goodness more easily.

Needless to say it was hard for me to part with this book once I got my hands on it, but I had to set it free with the arrival of the assertive FIRST NOTICE email from the library. It may be that I’ll have to source my own copy to join my little niche of church-published Polish recipe books my grandma passed along to me. It seems like an appropriate mixing of traditions.

Best Blue Books

03ca60a16618b63e79a17c0fd3b2bd25Occasionally a library patron will be searching for a book and can only remember that it has a certain colored cover. It’s usually hard to find books just by color, but here’s a group of blue books that you’ll surely want to find. They obviously all have blue covers, but they are also about some sort of human frailty. I’ve read almost all of them in the last month. Mostly, they’re all excellent!

index (1)All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is the one that everyone is talking about and you’ll need to cue up for this New York Times best seller. It is a brilliantly beautiful novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied St. Malo, France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. That sounds like it’s been written before, doesn’t it? Yet, this book was amazing because of wonderfully complex characters, brilliant writing, a fast-paced tempo, a romantic setting and an interesting plot. I highly recommend it!

indexMoonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic by Nora Gallagher was recommended by a co-worker (Thanks, Julie!). It is a poignant memoir about a woman who is healthy and happy and competent but who all of a sudden has vision problems which lead to a spiral into a new life she calls “Oz”: a life full of doctors, medical appointments, and feelings of powerlessness. She also gains a deeper understanding of human frailty and questions her religion and her God. I enjoyed this introspective book about facing disease.

index (2)The Story of Land and Sea is by Katy Simpson Smith who in elegant, lyrical prose, confronts the stark cruelty and hypocrisy of Revolutionary-era slavery, as well as the pain and grief suffered by the powerless and powerful alike. At first, this slim historical novel seems to be this simple story of a Revolutionary-era family, a former sailor whose wife died in childbirth and who is now taking his young daughter to sea in hopes of curing her yellow fever. The story quickly opens up, however, jumping back in time to his wife Helen’s youth on her father’s plantation. There we meet Moll, a slave given to Helen when both were children, and see how uneasily their relationship, a disturbing blend of friendship and mistress-servant obligation, unfolds as they grow up.

index (3)Still Alice by Lisa Genova was also recommended by Julie (I make a habit of asking folks if they’ve read anything good lately). This novel reads like a memoir because Genova has used her own background in Neuroscience at Harvard to create a realistic portrait of 50 year-old Alice Howland who is also a professor of Linguistics at Harvard. When Alice begins to forget things -even words- she must face the horrific possibility that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease. This book is far from depressing as it clearly explains the testing, treatment options, and symptoms of the disease within the context of an absorbing family drama. It is a very readable primer for anyone touched by Alzheimer’s.

The Light Between Oceans index (4)by M. L. Stedman is the perennial New York Times bestseller soon to be a major motion picture from Spielberg that is “irresistible…seductive…with a high concept plot that keeps you riveted from the first page” (O, The Oprah Magazine). After four years in the Great War, Tom Sherbourne takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote Australian island. His young wife, Isabel, who has suffered two miscarriages and a still-birth, finds a boat washed ashore with a dead man and a live baby. Tom wants to report it straightaway, but Isabel convinces him that Lucy is a ‘gift from God.’ They return to the mainland when Lucy is two and learn that their decision has greatly impacted others. To quote Julie: “Oh my goodness! That was a great book!”

indexindexIf you’ll humor me, I’ll add two more blue books to this list even though I haven’t read them yet: The Vacationers by Emma Straub and Crusoe’s Daughter by Jane Gardam. They’re on my to-be-read pile, they look like great novels and, hey, they’re blue! If you need help finding any of these blue books, just ask your friendly librarians (or Julie) at the Everett Public Library!

Send in the Clowns

Clowns have always scared me, yet I seek out the most terrifying clown images. A few years ago there were reports of a clown standing on a dark Northampton street, under just enough light to make it scary as hell. It’s not illegal to stand on a dark street corner dressed as a clown. It should be.

creepy (2)

On a side note, I worked at a grocery store years ago and there was a shady guy who liked to hang around and chat up the young checkers. He used to brag about being a clown and going to children’s birthday parties. The guy gave off weird vibes and a co-worker chided me: “How bad can he be? He dresses up as a clown for children.”

“So did John Wayne Gacy,” was my answer.

ItI first read Stephen King’s It when I was 13 (now the puzzle pieces are coming together to explain why I’m so….me) and then watched the TV mini-series with Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Nobody could have done a more terrifying job than Tim Curry. He’s helped to ensure millions of us sleep with a light on and dread hearing that the circus is coming to town.

King’s epic childhood fear book, It, begins in 1957 when kids start disappearing from the small town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denbrough is down with a cold on a rainy day. He makes a paper sailboat for his little brother and puts paraffin wax on the bottom so Georgie can sail it in the rain run-off in the gutters. It’s the last time Bill (or anyone else) will see his brother alive. Georgie’s body is found with one of his arms ripped off. Bill’s family and his childhood are forever changed.

Bill, Ben, Eddie, Ritchie, Beverly, Stan and Mike are all outcasts in school and for many of them, outcasts from their families. The summer of their twelfth year, they find each other and form the Loser’s Club. Strange things are happening in Derry. The bullies seem to be bloated with rage and cruelty. And these aren’t pulling- your- hair or putting a whoopee cushion under your seat kind of bullies. These are kids who in a few more years will be robbing liquor stores and killing old ladies for their pensioner’s checks.

More kids are disappearing but now there’s an even darker undertone to it. Pennywise the Dancing Clown, a supernatural shape-shifter, knows every child’s fear and uses it. To Ritchie, it’s his fear of the werewolf from I Was a Teenage Werewolf. For Eddie, a mama’s boy and a hypochondriac, it’s a leper. Pennywise feeds on their deepest fears and calls the fear “Salting the meat.” That summer, the Loser’s Club finds out that the evil in Derry has a cycle.

Every 27 years people disappear and it’s not always kids. Back in the 1700s, It woke up and 300 residents of Derry disappeared. In 1957 a vicious storm ripped through the town, awakening It. That summer, the Loser’s Club defeated Pennywise but they know that in 27 years, he will be back. The group ends up going their separate ways, moving out-of-town and losing touch. Mike, however, has stayed in Derry and has become the local librarian. Since Mike stayed, he’s the only one who truly remembers that summer. The others have repressed the memory so deeply that nothing from that summer stands out. They even forget about each other. 27 years after their defeat of Pennywise, Mike begins to call the Loser’s Club to say it’s happening again. It’s back.

One by one they all come back to Derry to defeat evil again. But this time, they’re not scared kids. They’re scared adults and realize they’ve always been haunted and that their grown up lives aren’t as glamorous as they seem. But the bond that brought them all together as kids is still there.

If you want to be scared (and probably end up huddled in a closet with a flashlight and winter coats covering you) by clowns taking children and eating them and you like stories where a bunch of lonely 12-year-old kids find friendship and banish an evil clown, this is the book for you. And if you see some clown standing under a street lamp during the darkest part of night, run. Just run.

Heartwood 5:1 – Tristram Shandy

celibacyTristram Shandy
by Laurence Sterne  (1713-1768)
749 pgs.  Everyman’s Library, 1991.
Originally published, 1759-1767

Many a reader and literary critic has commented on Laurence Sterne’s 18th Century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. So, I’ll defer to these many others, saying only that I had good fun reading this, especially the first two parts, in which the reader shares time with Tristram’s father and uncle Toby and their various hobby-horses.

******

OK, it hardly seems fair to such a delightful and unconventional book to leave it at that. Unlike Tristram, I wanted to make short work of this, but I guess I should at least outline the story and highlight some of the book’s most noted traits.

The main characters are Tristram’s father (Walter) and his uncle Toby, accompanied by an assortment of characters at Shandy hall. The main events in the story surround Tristram’s conception, his physician-bungled delivery, botched Christening, and further botched circumcision – all relayed with comic brio. Walter expounds with great flair on various and sundry subjects, and battle-wounded uncle Toby, along with his sidekick Corporal Trim, reenact the sieges they read about in the newspaper. The latter part of the book includes Tristram’s Grand Tour through Europe and ends with uncle Toby wooing his neighbor, the widow Wadman.

But these bare plot details in no way prepare you for the what awaits in Tristram’s telling of the story. So, let me say a little about that.

The story unfolds as a mashup of narrative styles, told out of chronological sequence, and filled with digressions and interruptions along with various appeals to the reader and other acts of authorial self-consciousness. The influence of Cervantes is notable as are Locke’s notions about the irrational association of ideas. Sterne leaves a variety of gaps in the text: using asterisks to replace words, blank spaces and even blank pages, and in one place he’s actually excised a chapter along with its associated page numbering. There are occasional drawings, and at one point Tristram diagrams the digressive paths taken in earlier parts of his book and promises (falsely) to be a more linear storyteller henceforward. The author’s Preface appears toward the end of volume I, and the Dedication to volume III comes mysteriously after Chapter XIX. It should be mentioned that Sterne’s narrative style was important to the development of psychological fiction, modernism, and even postmodernism.

storytelling graphic

Now you must be thinking this sounds like a book mostly interested in showboating and trickery, but it’s much more than that – this is deeply enjoyable reading, with warm and eccentric characters, interesting ideas and situations, and short chapters that most often propel the reader humorously along. Readers who have enjoyed Don Quixote should have fun with this as well. You could surely do worse than to while away some time in the company of Tristram and the brothers Shandy.

2014: My Year in Short Stories

Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover imageEvery year I like to set some reading goals for myself; it’s about the closest thing I come to making New Year’s resolutions. This year I set out to read 75 books (I just barely made it!), start reading graphic novels, and start reading short story collections. I managed to do all three, and have compiled a list of my favorite short reads (graphic novel or otherwise).

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. This haunting collection of short stories was probably my favorite surprise of 2014. I picked up the audio book because I was drawn to the cover. The stories in this collection range from science fiction to supernatural storytelling, almost always with a bittersweet, romantic undertone. I think fans of Neil Gaiman’s brand of writing would enjoy this book.

The Buddha in the Attic cover imageThe Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. It might be a stretch to call this book a collection of short stories – it doesn’t unfold in the same way you’d expect such a collection to. Instead, it’s more of a mosaic of ‘micro stories,’ with each chapter piecing together the rapid-fire memories of countless women to create a picture of what it was like for Japanese mail-order brides to arrive in America, try to fit in, and live their lives. It was a wonderful listen as an audio book, but I’m sure it would be just as powerful if you were reading it on your own.

Saga, volume 1 cover image

`

Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples. This was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and I took to it very quickly. Staples’s artistic style was lush and dramatic. It added a lot of visual interest to an already action-packed story of escape and forbidden love. The plot is a satisfying mix of fantasy and science fiction for readers whose tastes happen to straddle that line, as mine tend to.

 

The Book of Bad Things by Dan Poblocki

bookofbadthingsI should keep a notebook of bad things so I’ll always be able to look out for them. I should have started it 30 years ago but better late than never.

BAD THING # 1

Never eat anything out of the staff room vending machines. The trail mix expired two years ago and the grape juice has gone back to grapes.

BAD THING #87 (you know there’s a lot of  bad things in-between  #1 and #87 but I’m trying to catch up on 30 years of bad things)

Run from anyone who says “Hey. Pull my finger.”

BAD THING # 192

Never get in the car with your grandpa who stops at stop lights and says “Is the light green or red? Tell me when it’s green.”

In The Book of Bad Things, Cassidy Bean lives in New York City in a one bedroom apartment with a mom who doesn’t take much of an interest in her daughter’s life. Most single moms would give up that room so their kid could feel like they had space to be alone in. Cassidy doesn’t get the bedroom.  She sleeps on the couch. She keeps a notebook of every bad thing she can think of. It’s her way of meeting her fears head on. When you recognize the scary thing in the dark you’re still scared, but you can come up with a plan. Some of her Bad Things are about zombies, ghosts, hauntings, sleep walking and nightmares.

For the last three summers she’s been a part of a program that pairs up city kids with families in a more rural setting, as in, a house and a lawn and neighbors who don’t scream at all hours of the night. This is her last year with her host family because the cut off age is 13. She’s fallen in love with the Tremont family over the years because they were so welcoming and treated her like one of their own. She’s best friends with Joey Tremont.

But this year is different. Usually she gets a phone call or a letter in advance telling her to pack her stuff up because she’ll be spending the summer with the Tremonts. She finally hears from them but she and Joey haven’t spoken. Something is wrong with him. Her first big clue that something if off is when she gets off the bus and Mrs. Tremont isn’t there to pick her up. Maybe they changed their minds. Maybe they don’t want her there. Cassidy begins to have  a panic attack and decides to go into a grocery store to use their phone.

Mrs. Tremont forgot to pick her up because weird things are beginning to happen in the neighborhood. Ursula Chambers, the hermit/hoarder who lived in an old house down the street, has died under mysterious circumstances. There are bins upon bins of hoarded items in the driveway and people have been stopping by to root through the dead lady’s things and take them home.

That’s a bad thing. A very bad thing.

Ursula’s body goes missing. There are people who have seen her walking around town. They’ve reluctantly shared that they’ve also seen her in their houses. People who went through her things are being haunted. Or, as Cassidy starts to wonder, are they being warned? Does crazy Ursula Chambers want her precious things back? Or is it something else altogether? A few people who took Ursula’s things die in mysterious ways and their bodies disappear from the morgue. Last year Joey’s beloved dog died. And now he’s seen the dog and Ursula walking around.

The Tremonts live in a subdivision (I immediately thought of the movie Poltergeist and how all those houses looked exactly alike, except for, you know, the corpses popping up in the newly dug swimming pool and the fact that there was a portal to the other side in the little girl’s closet) and Ursula Chambers house was a hundred years old. Plenty of dark things in her basement bumping into things. Cassidy, Joey and a new friend know that the answers about the dead bodies disappearing, ghosts wandering by, and some nasty zombie-esque stuff are within Ursula’s old house and decide to sneak inside the ancient farmhouse to find out what’s going on. Bless children under the age of 13 that still have that streak of fearlessness in them. I would have stood on the lawn with a gas can and matches and yelled “Let it burn!” but I’m not very adventurous any more when it comes to finding zombies in basements.  Well….maybe I still have a bit of the old me around here somewhere, the one that says “Hold my beer. I’m going to do something really stupid.”

Don’t let the J Fiction spine label fool you. There were a couple of times that I was positive The Book of Bad Things wasn’t a kid’s book. And it’s not. It’s a book for everyone who likes to be so scared they have to leave a light on all night. That’s not me. Of course not.

Yeah, it was me.