A Serial Killer in Love

normalI read somewhere that the average person will walk by a serial killer 36 times in their life. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s another reason not to leave the house. Just to be safe. I found this hilarious postcard a few years ago. The scene on the front is a gorgeous blue purple pink sunset and ocean waves lapping the shore. Then off to the other side of the picture someone had written “I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that I don’t want to meet the love of my life while walking along the beach because he might be a serial killer.”

The killer in Graeme Cameron’s Normal is never named and the story is told from the first person point of view. The one thing I hated about this novel? I really started to like this guy. I felt the same way about the TV show Dexter. Dexter was a serial killer but he went after other serial killers so it was okay to like him. But the serial killer in Normal has a cage built in a secret basement underneath his garage. He keeps carefully selected women in there. When he goes grocery shopping and is the handsome man picking up apples or chicken and chit-chatting with other customers no one suspects there is a woman trapped in a cage far below his garage. And the dude doesn’t mind picking up a box of tampons! Okay, so the tampons are for the girls he kidnaps and eventually kills but any man who doesn’t mind picking up a box of sanitary items for a girl gets gold stars from me.

But something unexpected happens. The serial killer falls in love with the check-out girl at the grocery store. She falls in love with him too. With all that lovin’ he doesn’t feel the need to murder women. Except for one last girl that makes him feel like he’s the one trapped in a cage. Erica is a pretty girl who’s had it rough in life. She doesn’t trust men (especially when they lock her in cages). Her home life sucked so much that she hints she murdered her abusive stepfather. Now, I’m no psychiatrist but I’m willing to bet there are some daddy issues going on there plus a good old case of mush brain.

Erica is psychotic and she turns the tables on the unnamed serial killer. She’s not a terrified victim locked up in a cage. She is the thing in the dark water that rises up to take a taste of you. She scared me more than the serial killer himself. There were many times she could have escaped and the killer was hoping she would because she is freaking him out. Ever since falling in love with that grocery store clerk, he has no inclination to kill at all. He thinks about killing Erica because she puts her psychotic nose into his love life but can’t bring himself to do it.

The police are certain he’s the killer. His van has been seen on cctv (England has cameras everywhere) and other questions about the man himself have started popping up. The police visit his house, ask him a million questions and then leave because he’s a serial killer and it’s not like he’s going to blurt out “I chopped up a woman’s body because I got bored with her and then there’s my psychotic doppelgänger who won’t leave me alone and probably wants to spend the rest of her life with me. But not down in the cage.” By the end of the book, I found myself rooting for the killer and quietly chanting “Kill her!  Kill her!”

There was nothing normal about Normal. The serial killer is just as baffled as the reader when he falls in love and decides to give up killing. I tried to picture the next 40 years of this guy’s life: marriage, children, jobs, grandchildren. And then, life winding down as it so often does, he and his wife settle into their golden years. I can see them sitting on a porch, the sunset long faded. He turns to her and says “I used to kill girls.”

Here There Be Monsters

I have a bedtime ritual. I go to bed, do a little reading, maybe do a little writing (because some stupid part of me, no matter how old I get, still wants to be a writer but I can’t say it out loud because for me, it’s right up there with saying “I want to be a space cowboy when I grow up!”). Then I have to watch a horror movie. I have to.

I told someone my ritual and they nodded knowingly when I said I did a little reading because that’s what normal people do and then their eyes bugged out when I said I watch a horror movie every evening before falling asleep. They screeched “I’d get nightmares! Don’t you get nightmares?” The answer is no. I don’t get nightmares from horror movies or from reading horror books. If I watched a romantic comedy before falling asleep I’m positive I would have nightmares. But hey, that’s just the way my brain is built.

boywhodrewmonstersKeith Donohue is in my top 10 list of writers who I read and think “Damn, I wish I had written that book!” Donohue’s horror writing is subtle, sneaky and cleverly disguised as literature until something monstrous skitters across the road in front a car or something in a desk drawer starts to move around. I recently finished his latest book: The Boy Who Drew Monsters.  

The Keenans live in their dream house by the sea in a coastal town in Maine. Holly Keenan, a tightly wound mother and wife, is a lawyer who works part-time in town. Tim Keenan is a stay at home dad and also the caretaker of the many lavish homes that are only occupied during the summer in their community. Jack Peter, their 10-year-old son, never leaves the house. Both parents know that Jack has been different from birth but what parent wants to believe there’s something ‘wrong’ with their child? Jack shows all the signs of being autistic. He doesn’t like to be touched, hugged, surprised, or looked at. His mom wakes him up one morning and startles him and he hits her in the face. She starts thinking that it might be time to do something more drastic with Jack, that he’s already uncontrollable with his fits of rage. He’s only going to get bigger and stronger and what will they do then? Tim takes a more hands on approach and believes that if they work harder with Jack they’ll be able to manage him and he might become a functioning member of society. This divides them and sends them onto separate paths.

Holly starts going to the town’s little Catholic church. I thought maybe she was looking for an exorcist for the kid because hey, couldn’t hurt. But she’s seeking comfort. The priest serves her cake and tea and talks about God stuff, most of it not really helpful to Holly. There’s a painting of a ship wreck on his wall that Holly becomes obsessed with. After seeing the painting Holly begins to hear strange noises coming from the ocean: children crying, people screaming. The priest’s Japanese maid ends up helping Holly the most, telling her ghost stories and stating that as a child she was considered ‘strange’ like Jack.

Jack’s best and only friend Nick knows to go along with Jack’s fixations. Like most boys, Jack and Nick go through the normal boyhood obsessions: trains, putting together models, marbles. But Jack has moved on to an obsession with drawing elaborate and terrifyingly real monsters. Nick’s parents are a couple of drunks, the kind you have to make sure pass out on their stomachs so they don’t choke on their own vomit. They’re  going away on a cruise for Christmas and dump Nick off at Jack’s house.

The days slowly unwind for the 10-year-olds, like days during Christmas break should. Tim makes them breakfast and lunch and then leaves them to go check on the summer houses of the wealthy. While driving, Tim sees something white and long limbed scuttle across the road. He thinks it was a man but the damn thing was impossibly white (I’m pretty white and I can run across a street very fast if there’s a Ding-Dong waiting for me on the other side). Tim thinks he’s going crazy, especially after he sees the same white long limbed man roaming the sand dunes outside the house.

Meanwhile, Nick is getting frightened by Jack’s macabre preoccupation with drawing monsters. There is something to Jack that wasn’t there before, something sly and cunning. Nick doesn’t want to play with him anymore, doesn’t want him to draw any more monsters because the monsters are coming to life. He can hear them outside the house and sometimes inside the house.

Holly is beginning to see and hear things as well and visits the priest again so she can talk to the maid. This doesn’t sit well with the priest because he wants to throw Bible quotes at her and fill her with the comfort of Catholicism. The last thing he wants is Holly sitting around listening to his maid telling ghost stories. Holy Ghost, yes. Booga, booga ghosts, no. Each person is in their own insular world of terror made worse by a big snow storm moving in.

I read the last few pages and then went back and re-read them again. I did not see the end coming. And I liked it. Because it wasn’t pretty and neatly wrapped up and satisfying.  Do the monsters win? I don’t know. Okay, I do know but can’t tell you because then you wouldn’t read the book.

End of story.

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.

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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.