Sometimes Dead is Better

I read Stephen King’s Pet Sematary when I was 10 or 11. My brother (who is 2/1/2 years older than me) had finished it and left it on the couch. I picked it up and began reading. That book sealed the deal on me wanting to be a writer.

Stephen King has admitted that Pet Sematary disturbs him more than his other horror novels because the plot included every parent’s worst fear: the loss of a child. Back in the 1980s, Stephen King and his family moved to rural Maine. The country road in front of their home was anything but empty and quiet. Large semis often barreled down the road, claiming beloved pets and inadvertently teaching kids about death. King said his youngest child, still getting the tricky thing of walking down, had made his way to the edge of the road where a semi was rocketing down.

King couldn’t remember if he’d tackled the toddler in time or the child just tripped, preventing what could have been every parent’s worst nightmare. The seeds of the novel were planted when he discovered a pet cemetery behind his house. He didn’t have a place to write in in his new house, so he wrote in a room in the grocery store across from that road made for tragedy.

In Pet Sematary (misspelled by the children who made the place their pets final resting ground) Louis Creed and his family move to the rural town of Ludlow, Maine. Louis was an ER doctor in Chicago, but wanted a quiet place where he could spend more time with his wife and two children. He takes a job as infirmary doctor at the university and begins to settle his family.

His new neighbor Jud Crandall, a nimble 80-year-old man, introduces the Creed family to the pet cemetery near the woods behind their home. Generations of neighborhood children have buried their pets there. Many were claimed by the hell-bent for leather semis on that country road.

Louis’ 5-year-old daughter Ellie, like all children, starts to ask questions about death and why her beloved cat Church won’t live as long as her. He explains that death is a natural thing, earning the wrath of his wife Rachel who believes death isn’t to be talked about. Her anger might be because of a tragedy in her youth with her older sister dying at home while Rachel was the only one there.

The road claims Ellie’s cat, Church. Jud, who has become a good friend to Louis, tells him about a place beyond the pet cemetery, ground that belonged to a local tribe. The earth there is bad, the ground stony. Jud tells Louis he has to bury the cat himself.

The next day Louis is surprised by the return a much changed Church and even tugs a bit of plastic from the garbage bag he buried the cat in out of the feline’s mouth. Jud regrets telling Louis about the place beyond the pet cemetery and tells a couple horror stories of his own from the 80 years he’s lived in the same house. The hard ground is sour. What comes back from the soil is not the same that went in.

From there on out, Pet Sematary delves deeper into loss and darkness and what a man will do to keep his family together.

After finishing Pet Sematary, King gave it his usual 6-week cooling off period and read it again. He was so disturbed by the story that he stuck it in a drawer and left it alone until another book was needed to fulfill his contract with Doubleday. Decades after its publication, it’s a book that still manages to disturb readers.

28 Barbary Lane

The first time I read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City was 23 years ago. I had seen the six-part miniseries on PBS and wanted more. I usually read a book before seeing the movie, but this was a fluke; one of those 3 A.M. PBS airings when insomnia has had its way with you so you watch TV hoping late night TV will work as anesthesia. Instead, I became infatuated with the characters. I hit up the bookstore the next day and bought Tales of the City, a book I’ve read 9 times now.

Picture it: San Francisco in the 70s. The hippies are still around but the up and coming disco era is in ascent. The city is a haven for gay bars, discos, and bathhouses. All places to have intimate, no-strings-attached sex.

24-year-old Midwesterner on vacation, Mary Ann Singleton has been in San Francisco for five days. She’s made a decision that will drastically change her life: she calls her mother at home in Cleveland and tells her mother to tell her boss she’s not coming home. Her mother cajoles her and says she’s had her fun but enough is enough: time to come home and never look back at that modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.

But Mary Ann’s made up her mind. She needs to make a life of her own and she’ll do it in San Francisco. She crashes at an old high school friend’s place, a woman she considers a typical California airhead who, my God, not only has a pet rock but the Joy of Sex and dirty magazines right out on the coffee table for anyone to see. Mary Ann’s trying to shed some of her Midwestern naïveté, but when her friend talks her into cruising at a Safeway, Mary Ann decides she’s done living with her high school friend.

She answers an ad for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane on Russian Hill. The landlady, Mrs. Anna Madrigal, is somewhere in her 50s and a mix between a screen siren of the 30s and a mystical gypsy.  She welcomes Mary Ann to her new home and later on tapes a joint to her door as a welcome to the family gesture. Anna Madrigal has a few shadowy secrets of her own, as all eccentric landladies should.

What follows is the story of the tenants of 28 Barbary Lane; their lives intertwining with their neighbors, their eccentric landlady and the lives of others outside the apartment. These tenants include Mona Ramsey, at the tail end of her own hippie years, who is close with Mrs. Madrigal, a sometime lesbian who works for an advertising firm.

Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is Mona’s best friend. She calls herself his ‘hag,’ a woman who constantly spends time with gay men. He says if things were different, he’d be in love with her. But Michael is looking for real love, the kind where you buy a puppy together and still go on picnics after being together for decades.

Brian Hawkins, a former lawyer turned waiter, is chasing women while saddled with a romantic heart. He thinks the best thing about San Francisco is that all the men are looking for each other and leaving him with plenty of women to choose from.

Each character is trying to find their lives in the city while they get into and out of relationships, life and death, the 70s, and what the 80s will bring. I honestly have not stopped thinking about these characters for the last 23 years. They’ll randomly pop into my head while I’m driving somewhere, in the middle of watching TV, and during my own writing. I’ve reread all 9 books in the Tales of the City series in the last two weeks and, though this will sound cheesy, I turn to them when I’m not feeling so hot or need a story I know is going to take me out of my own head. I all but stroke the cover of Tales of the City while hissing “My preciousss.”

So get in the Way Back When machine and immerse yourself in 28 Barbary Lane, where people find family even when their biological family is scattered in all directions. There also might be a murder somewhere in there, and one hell of a huge secret about Mrs. Madrigal.

And don’t forget the Welcome to Your New Home joint taped to your front door. You’re going to need it.

Even Cupid Screws Up Sometimes

It’s good to know that Love (aka Cupid) sometimes thinks she’s a jerk and admits to pulling stunts that rank high on the jerk spectrum. And boy, Love admits to mucking up the stables of love and wants to smooth out the love life of Gael in Leah Konen’s The Romantics.

Gael is days away from turning 18, loves movies and is about to tell his girlfriend of a few months “I love you” for the first time. What happens after saying I love you? Gael’s girlfriend doesn’t say I love you back and that confuses Gael. The next day he sees his girlfriend Anika and his best friend Mason getting cozy together.

Cue a John Hughes film epic of a betrayed boy who goes on the rebound.

Gael’s mother invites Anika and Mason to his 18th birthday dinner not knowing what is going on. And Gael promptly explodes and walks out on his own dinner and crashes into a girl on her bike as he’s walking away.

That girl is Cara, a college freshman who is nursing her own broken heart. Well aware that they’re both rebounding, Gael gets advice from Sammy, another college freshman who is tutoring Gael’s sister in French. Sammy’s had the same boyfriend for three years and Gael thinks she’s blissfully in love but he doesn’t know the truth, that things have come to an end.

Gael does his best to see his relationship with Cara as more than a rebound thing. Unbeknownst to Gael, he has been the object of love that Cupid’s been trying to fit together. His parents have ended their long marriage and Gael thinks everything he believes about love is now wrong. But as it happens, Gael wasn’t looking in the right direction when Love chucked an arrow at him.

Will he realize that he’s been in love with the wrong person and Love was trying to fix everything by pushing him towards the right girl? Is love even worth it if people aren’t going to stay together forever? Is it real or I can’t Believe It’s Not Butter? Sorry. I’m writing this with the TV on in the background. Commercials are longer than the show itself.

Watching as Love admits to wrongdoing and tries to clean up the mess of feelings was as satisfying as hearing a man ask for directions. And if you enjoy (like me) seeing Love make mistakes and attempt to fix them instead of letting a cliche happen, The Romantics is for you.

Hey! You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away

Whenever I hear the Beatles song “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” I think of the loneliest 3 A.M. soul huddled in bed scribbling in a notebook about how much in love they are but they can’t tell anyone and it’s eating them alive. Or maybe that’s just me. Last week.

We live in an age when we can declare our feelings from the rooftops, hire a sky writer, and hire a four man mariachi band to follow our love interest around (for some reason all of my ideas would probably land me in jail or with a glovebox full of restraining orders.) We don’t have to hide our love. Unless that love is for your sister’s husband. But that’s a story for another day.

In John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Cyril Avery is born in Ireland at the end of WWII. His mother, a 16-year-old unwed mother, is chased out of town by the parish priest. She travels a few hours away and has her child. She gives him up for adoption. Cyril is adopted by two people who should have never been parents. They aren’t cruel to him, but they aren’t very loving and always remind him he’s not a ‘real Avery.’

When Cyril is 8 he meets Julián Woodbede, a boy who is everything Cyril is not: beautiful, bubbly, and beloved by almost everyone. When Cyril reaches his teens he realizes he’s in love with Julián. But this is 1950s Ireland where God’s hand is in everything and being gay is illegal. Cyril never confesses his love to Julián, although that love is the only thing he holds onto as he grows up.

Sex is never a loving event but furtive and quick, something done in the shadows or bathrooms. The threat of police raids hangs over every encounter. Cyril makes a life changing decision that sets him on a path he never expected, throwing his life into chaos. Will Cyril become loved and be able to love in return or will he spend the rest of his life sitting on his bed and scribbling about love in a notebook? Will he return to a changed Ireland where loving a man is considered a heavier sin than birth control?

The Heart’s Invisible Furies left me in tears. And I don’t cry uncontrollably. Unless I’m watching Dumbo. God, cue the water works on that one. But this book still has me wondering how Cyril’s doing and if he ever truly found the love he needed. I wonder if any of us find the love we’ve always needed.

A Book Where Another Teenager Dies

I have no problem staying five feet away from the man I love, mainly because he doesn’t exist. The problem is getting one to scale my fortress of acerbic and self-deprecating sarcasm. Picture it: me in another 40 years, dead in my kitchen with my 22 cats eating my face.

That escalated quickly.

In Rachael Lippincott’s Five Feet Apart, 17-year-old Stella has spent her life in and out of the hospital with cystic fibrosis. She finds herself in the hospital for a month’s stay as she builds up her lung capacity and is dosed with antibiotics. She’s climbed the lung transplant list and now all she has to do is stay healthy enough to get that lung. Stella is in control of her illness and is getting healthy and nothing is going to stop her.

Famous last words.

Will also has cystic fibrosis. The rule with CFers is they have to remain 6 feet apart from one another at all times to keep from infecting one another’s fragile lungs. Will’s CF comes at a higher risk: he has B. cepacia, an antibiotic resistant infection. People with B. cepacia aren’t eligible for a lung transplant because the thought is if they get a lung transplant it’s a waste of a good organ.

Will’s been all around the world but not as a tourist. He’s been in hospitals trying drug trial after drug trial to treat his B.cepacia and nothing has worked. This time he’s in the hospital for a new clinical drug trial. His lung capacity is supremely low and he has no faith the new drug will work. But Will has a plan. In two weeks he’ll turn 18 and be able to make his own decisions. He’ll unplug himself from all the machines, leave the hospital, and go see the world he’s only seen from hospital windows.

As you have probably guessed, Will and Stella fall in love but they can never touch. The rule is they have to stay six feet apart. Stella decides to make her own choice, and take back a bit of her life. She changes the six feet rule to five feet. It might not seem like much, but it makes Stella feel like she’s not being controlled by her sickness.

Told from alternating perspectives, Five Feet Apart is not only about falling in love. It’s also about deciding on a future when it seems like there isn’t one. The world could probably learn a thing or two from Stella and Will about surviving and keeping the fire of hope alive.

And don’t worry. They don’t die. I wouldn’t dangle this book in front of you if another teenager died. Then again, my narration can’t always be trusted. I mean, my face is going to be eaten by a large amount of cats 40 years from now. Can you trust a book review from someone like that?

Just read the book. It’s worth it.

Forgotten Gods

I’ve often wondered what happens to gods when people move from one country to another. When mass immigration from far-flung climes began, did people bring their gods with them? Or was all that water too much to cross? Yes, people brought their beliefs and their folklore but they tucked them away in cupboards and basements in the name of assimilation. But was belief enough to lure those gods vast distances before time passed and they became entirely forgotten?

In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, not only have people forgotten about worshiping their gods but they’ve begun to forget (and ignore) them in favor of two new gods: media and technology. The old gods have taken notice. No one sacrifices in their names anymore, their images are no longer scratched on walls, paper, or flesh.

Shadow Moon is an ex-con serving his last few days in prison. He has this overwhelming feeling that something dark is coming. He’s released three days early to attend the funeral of his wife who died in a car accident along with his best friend. At the airport on the way to the funeral, Shadow meets Wednesday, an older gentleman who seems particularly skilled in getting what he wants. At times a doddering old man and at others full of flickering eyes and thrumming lust, Wednesday offers Shadow a job. It takes some time to talk him into it, but Shadow finally agrees after seeing he has nothing left to go home to.

He becomes Wednesday’s chauffeur and gopher, driving him long distances to specific landmarks and to meet with certain people. Shadow thinks Wednesday might be a demented old man, grumbling about the old days and alluding to a coming war. He watches as the old god charms old friends like Mr. Nancy (aka Anansi from West African and Caribbean lore who takes the shape of a spider) and Ostara (better known as a pagan holiday appropriated by the Catholics into Easter) and a whole cast of gods and myths. At first, Shadow pulls a Scully (you know, from the X-Files) and doesn’t believe a word from Wednesday or the other gods until he finally has to admit all the strange happenings cannot be explained away. Shadow suffers from visions, something that never happened before he met Wednesday.

Meanwhile the ‘new gods’, representing the Internet and anything modern, kidnap Shadow and try to convince him to join their winning team and be one of the good guys. Why do they think they’re the good guys who will win? Even the Germans thought they were the good guys who would win. Each side thinks their stand is the right one. What Shadow can’t figure out is why he’s so important to both sides.

I can’t tell you that because the point of my blogs is to talk you into reading the book, a little “Hey, how are you? I think I have a story here you will like.” I hate spoilers. I especially hate reading anything that starts with SPOILERS AHEAD. Why don’t you just tell me Santa is not real or the Easter Bunny is a myth?

Fans of folklore and mythology will be entranced by this book, thoroughly enjoying the deeply created characters who stomp off the page and into the room. Who knows, it might even motivate a few people to take out their old gods, dust them off, and put them in a shrine. Would you look at the time? I have 300 candles to light and 2 hours of chanting to the ‘God of Books’ before sunrise.

Rumor Has It

What the heck must it be like to be so confident in yourself that you could see someone you like, march right up to them, and say: “You. I’m taking you home to my bed right now.” Not only to have the confidence to say that, but also the confidence to know that the person is going to nod yes, take your hand, and let you lead them to a place where you can be alone. Mind you, I’ve just downed more than half a box of cold medicine, a feat that would impress Keith Richard, so I’m also wondering how men can have sex with a lamp on or the curtains open, letting all that new moon shine down on, well, all that moon.

In Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen, Jack is a promiscuous high school student and I mean promiscuous in the best way possible: he likes himself and he likes sex. He likes it a lot. And for that, he’s become fodder for the high school gossip mill. The girls bathroom is right next to the boys and once a week Jack enjoys a solitary cigarette while listening to the latest news about himself through the thin walls of the bathroom. Evidently, any male he makes eye contact with becomes a conquest. It’s been said he was part of a forgy (an orgy of 3 or more people). Many of the rumors about him are wrong except that he does like sex. He’s just not about doing it for popularity.

One day he opens his locker and a note slips out. It seems he has a secret admirer. He can’t tell if it’s sweet or creepy. His best friend Ben, a romantic who is still waiting on his fist kiss, thinks it’s sweet while Jenna, with her razor sharp tongue, thinks it’s a little stalkery.

Jenna got kicked off the school’s newspaper for articles like which teacher was pulled over for a DUI, so now she does online news. She wants Jack to answer sex, relationship, and life questions for her blog. He’s reluctant to put himself out there, giving advice he’s afraid might mess someone’s life up. But he starts reading submitted questions and gets hooked. His answers to questions would make Doctor Ruth turn bright red and fall off her sex therapist chair.

Jack begins to get more notes slipped into his locker. They’ve gone from sweet to restraining order worthy. The notes begin to threaten his friends and his mother. Jack’s always been close with his mom but lately he feels like they haven’t been connecting. He doesn’t know who his father is. His mom chose a sperm donor. One of the notes threatens her job. He does his best to keep the notes from her.

He confides in his beloved art teacher. (Why is there always that one teacher you know will be in your corner and fight for you? And why can’t that happen when you become an adult and get a boss?) She takes Jack and the notes to the principal. The principal basically says that Jack brings it on himself, wearing a little make up to make his looks stand out. Just when Jack is going to give up and give in to his stalker, he finds out who it is. And it’s not anyone who’d ever be on the suspect list.

Full of love, doubt, and confusion, Jack of all Hearts is about not apologizing for who you are or playing into the cliche of how everyone thinks certain people should act.

Excuse me, the other half of the NyQuil box is calling and Keith Richards is mumbling about how amazed he is someone can survive that ( except nobody can understand him so someone finds a translator.) Be yourself, have as much sex as you can, be safe, protect your heart but if it gets broken, let it be broken for awhile before you find the super glue in the junk drawer.