Heartwood 7:2 – Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia

target-in-the-nightTarget in the Night by feted, recently deceased, Argentinian author Ricardo Piglia is a beautifully constructed novel featuring a number of interrelated stories, distinctly individualized characters, and stylish storytelling.

On its surface we have the murder of Tony Durán who came from the U.S. to a provincial town outside of Buenos Aires with lots of cash and a connection to the twin Belladona sisters. Attempting to solve Durán’s murder is Croce, the quixotic, Holmesian detective who has a long history of butting heads with local prosecutor Cueto.

The murder involved a knifing and the apparent use of a defunct dumbwaiter to lower down cash from the victim’s hotel room. The latter may also have provided the means of escape for a small person. Indeed the chief suspect is a Japanese jockey by the name of Yoshio, and his alleged act is being called a crime of passion. Other suspects include various members of the Belladona family, and a different jockey, who may have been paid to make the hit as he was in need of cash to buy a beloved, injured horse.

Woven into the story are scenes at the racetrack, the Belladona brothers and their fortress-like factory for cutting-edge automotive prototypes on the outskirts of town, a reporter (Renzi) from the city who has come to report on the murder, and a slowly unfolding history of the town and life on the Argentinian pampas that brings to mind García Márquez’s mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The Belladona family are prominent citizens in the community but are described as being currently at war with each other. We learn of their family history in ways that are fascinating and add layers of intrigue. For example, Renzi has a long talk with the twin, Sophia (eventually leading to intimacy), which unfolds episodically throughout the novel. And Renzi discovers more details about the Belladonna family with the help of the town’s efficient archivist, Rosa, revealing a family schism and the attempt to appropriate the Belladona factory and surrounding lands through a corporate takeover.

In addition to all this, Piglia’s various characters have peculiar interests that include a fascination with language and syntax, dreams and the work of Carl Jung, literature and philosophy, quasi-mysticism, rationalism, madness, perception and the idée fixe. Target in the Night is a wonderful amalgam of detective story and classical tragedy told in voices that vary from Chandler to Pynchon to Bolaño. Readers in need of cleanly wrapped up narratives should probably look elsewhere, but for those who are open to ambiguity and enjoy finely realized characters, myriad subject matter, and punchy yet graceful writing — definitely give this book a look.

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Blanco nocturno (Target in the Night) was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize in 2011. For more about the author see the Piglia Dossier in the first issue of the new journal, Latin American Literature Today.

The Female of the Species

This is how I kill someone.

I learn his habits, I know his schedule. It is not difficult. His life consists of quick stops at the dollar store for the bare minimum of things required to keep his ragged cycle going, his hat pulled down over his eyes so as not to be recognized.

But he is. It’s a small town.

What can I say? I’m a sucker for opening lines. The above quote, which opens Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species, is narrated by Alex Craft, a teenager in a small Ohio town hit hard by recession and harder by opioid addiction. The soon-to-be-victim that Alex is stalking is the man who abducted, raped and killed her older sister three years prior. Due to a lack of evidence, police cannot make charges stick. Thus, the killer walks free until Alex takes ferocious justice into her own hands.

femalespeciesAmazingly, in a small town with no secrets, Alex gets away with murder. People are satisfied that a vigilante “made things right,” and the killer’s death evolves from recent crime to urban legend. But for Alex, this act of savage violence bears its own costs. Though she feels no guilt, she remains overcome with rage and views herself as deeply damaged. To protect others and herself, Alex withdraws, keeping to herself whenever possible. However, during her senior year of high school two classmates threaten her seclusion. Peekay, the local preacher’s daughter and Jack, the closest thing the town has to a golden child, are both drawn to Alex and determined to bring her into their lives. As Alex begins to care for Peekay and Jack, she feels a fierce need to protect them, bringing her anger back to the surface with explosive and violent effects.

At times, The Female of the Species is deeply upsetting. McGinnis does not shy away from uncomfortable subjects including addiction, sexual assault, rape culture, and the unequal expectations society places on young men and women. McGinnis gives her characters the voice to skewer hypocrisy with devastating precision, as when Alex observes: “But boys will be boys, our favorite phrase that excuses so many things, while the only thing we have for the opposite gender is women, said with disdain and punctuated with an eye roll.”

The Female of the Species rewards readers willing to grapple with these difficult issues by masterfully blending genres. McGinnis seamlessly maintains the intensity of a psychological thriller while incorporating elements of a contemporary coming of age story and flirting with classical tragedy. As the story unfolds, told from the alternating perspectives of Alex, Peekay and Jack, Alex is revealed to be an incredibly complex young woman whose intensity, ferocity and loyalty are equally mesmerizing and terrifying.

You Call Me Crazy Like It’s a Bad Thing

When you’re a kid, making friends is effortless. You’d eyeball one another on the playground for exactly 3 seconds and then say “Hey, I like that you can spin 12 times on the tire swing without hurling” and they would say back “I like your side ponytail even though Melissa said it looked stupid.”

“Melissa smells like onions.”

“Yeah, I heard her mom tried to give her up for adoption like, five times but there were no takers.”

“Explains a lot.”

Sigh. It was so much easier back then. I bet Melissa still smells like onions. She just seemed the type.

But when you get older it’s harder to make friends. It’s like something happens between the ages of 10 and 25. Some kind of guard goes up. I’ve been at the library almost twenty years and I work with my best friend Kathy. We actually never formally met. Seventeen years ago she would see me writing at a table before I started my shift and we’d do that “I want to talk to you but we’re at that point where we only know each other’s first name and have spent three months vaguely smiling at one another when we passed each other.” And then she saw me reading a book or I saw her reading a book and the rest is history. Now I can text her without any self-doubt (or evidently self-control): “Hey, is it normal that I want to throat-punch the kid in that book you recommended to me?”

furiouslyhappyI want to be best friends with Jenny Lawson. I probably said that when I wrote a post about her first book but it bears repeating. It goes double now that I’ve read her second memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things.

This is Jenny’s disclaimer on her own book:

“This is a funny book about living with mental illness. It sounds like a terrible combination, but personally I’m mentally ill and some of the most hysterical people I know are as well. So if you didn’t like the book then maybe you’re just not crazy enough to enjoy it. Either way, you win.”

How could I not fall a little in love with her and want to go to her house and raid her kitchen and watch stupid TV shows or just spend hours texting back and forth because we both have this thing where we don’t like to leave the house and even if we like people we’d rather not be around them sometimes?

In Furiously Happy, she divulges things people like me want to know (because I’m going through them too.) Here are some of my favorite chapter titles:

“I Found a Kindred Soul and He Has a Very Healthy Coat.”

Jenny goes to pick up a prescription through a drug store drive-through. While waiting for the pharmacist to ring up her prescription she notices a box of dog biscuits sitting next to the register. This sends her on a mental quest to find out what the hell that box of dog biscuits is doing there, opened. Maybe someone returned them because they were stale? And then she realizes dogs wouldn’t really care if they were stale biscuits. Spoiler alert: she watches as the pharmacist reaches into the box and eats a handful. While she questions whether she’s high right that moment and seeing things, she debates whether or not to say anything. “But I didn’t, because I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to accuse the man giving you drugs of eating dog food.”

Good call.

“How Many Carbs Are in a Foot?”

Jenny thinks she must be one of the last people on Earth who hasn’t tried kale or quinoa but she’s still gun-shy from the time Victor made what she thought was rice that had gone bad. Victor explains to her that it’s risotto and Jenny says “The stuff Gordon Ramsay is always yelling about? This is very disappointing.” She argues that she would eat a human foot if it was smothered in enough cheese and butter but Victor argues she wouldn’t because she can’t even finish the damn risotto. She can’t tell if that was a dare from him but she’s lactose intolerant anyway. “Everyone else at the dinner party would be tucking into their cheesy-butter foot, and I’d have to eat my foot parboiled and plain.  That’s my struggle. And it’s very real.”

“The Fear”

Jenny can make just about anything funny (see cheesy foot) and still get a serious thought out there. She’s no stranger to self-harm and even prefaces this chapter with a  trigger-warning for those who might read it and have their own dark thoughts start flooding in. Jenny has engaged in self-harm for years, from picking at her cuticles until they bleed freely to pulling her hair out by the roots. She writes about being labeled as broken when she is diagnosed with a ‘personality disorder.’ She tells her psychiatrist that she isn’t broken. “I just…I just hurt…inside. And when I tear at the outside it makes me feel less torn up on the inside. I don’t want to die. Really, I don’t. It’s not a lie. I’m not suicidal. I just feel like sometimes I can’t keep myself from hurting me. It’s like there’s someone else inside of me who needs to physically peel those bad thoughts out of my head and there’s no other way to get in there. The physical pain distracts me from the mental pain.” I want to give Jenny Lawson an award for this, the biggest YES! SOMEBODY GETS IT award for saying all of this out loud and at the same time acknowledging self-harm (in any form) is not a teenager’s domain.

“It’s Like Your Pants Are Bragging at Me.”

I don’t know why, but a lot of women’s clothing does not have pockets. This might explain why I buy my jeans in the men’s section. Either that or there’s a whole underlying issue I should talk to someone about. But I NEED pockets. Jenny’s husband Victor says women don’t need pockets because they have purses. Jenny has to explain to him “No. We are forced into purses because we don’t have pockets. Imagine if I ripped all of your pockets off of your sweet pocket-pants right now and you had to carry them around with you everywhere. You have like…seven pockets in those pants. Imagine carrying seven pockets with you at the carnival. You can’t. You’d need a purse. Then you’d get on the Zipper and it’d be fine for a minute until your purse popped open and all your stuff was being poltergeisted around the cage at you like you were a kitten in a dryer full of batteries, and then your phone gave you a black eye. This is all based on real life, by the way.” All I can say is I started slow clapping when she used poltergeisted as a verb. Victor, as usual, is flabbergasted and says “Pocket-pants don’t exist. They’re called cargo pants.” Potato tomato, dude.

“Voodoo Vagina.”

What book wouldn’t be complete without a vagina in there somewhere? Jenny’s friend Kim mailed her a home-made, educational (well, thank God it was educational) felted vagina. Kim makes them with babies inside them (felted ones, not real ones although that would be fascinating to see) to teach her children about where babies come from. Jenny studies the felted vagina and starts to wonder if the pubic hair on it is real and if it is, she needs to scour her hands immediately. She starts to think yeah, this is how voodoo dolls are made, adding human hair makes it become a voodoo doll. So technically the felt vagina with the seemingly real pubic hair is a voodoo vagina. Jenny left the vagina on her desk to go get her camera to take a picture and when she returned the vagina was gone. The cat was happily ripping it to pieces. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t real pubic hair but doll hair you can buy from a hobby shop.

What a time to be alive.

So, Jenny Lawson calls herself crazy repeatedly through the book and I’ve taken up the call as well. She explains that calling yourself crazy isn’t a demeaning mental illness or making fun of other people with mental illness. We ARE mentally ill and technically we ARE crazy. Just take a look at my therapist’s notes. She probably wrote CRAY CRAY with a bunch of arrows pointing at it the first time I talked to her. So embrace mental illness. Don’t let anyone make you feel less because you know your brain is sometimes like a test pattern at three in the morning on that one TV channel that comes in clear for 45 minutes a day. And if anyone throws you the side eye for calling yourself crazy, just tell them it’s okay. Jenny Lawson said you could.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Enjoy this last review from intrepid librarian Sarah as she heads off into a bright future:

Evicted : Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

evictedHarvard professor Matthew Desmond spent years in Milwaukee following tenants trying to find affordable housing. He also tracked landlords dealing with tenants who have fallen behind on their rent, and eventually end up evicted. This is a very timely piece, as housing prices are skyrocketing in most major cities, and people are struggling to find safe havens for their families. Desmond painstakingly looked at data in the housing market, eviction and court records to piece together a picture of a reality that has not been well researched.

There are lots of reports on low-income housing’s effectiveness and availability. What has been left behind are the people who are trying to make it in the regular rental market, as it can take years to get placed into low-income housing. The tenants’ life stories and fixed incomes can contribute to their ability (or inability) to pay rent each month. Desmond tries to humanize both the tenant experience, as well as the landlord business model, and the epic magnitude of our nation’s housing crisis. He argues that housing is a basic human right, especially in a country as wealthy as the United States.

His citations and research are a bit daunting, but his work is very readable and disseminated in simple terms. I appreciated his closing arguments, which provided ample plausible solutions. I was fascinated to find out our government spends more on tax breaks for home owners (i.e. mortgage interest deductions), than breaks for people trying to find a roof to live under. Being homeless can set off a wave of unfortunate circumstances. By supplying safe shelter to our citizens, we can begin the process of helping people chart their own success.

The Girl Before by JP Delaney

The Girl Before by JP Delaney is not my typical feel good read, in fact it is anything but!

girlbeforeInitially after reading the summary of this advanced reader copy and agreeing to preview the book, I expected I’d be getting a historical  novel but there was a mix up. Once I received the book and read the back jacket it was quite clear The Girl Before was not what I signed up for. However it looked intriguing: a psychological thriller, something I do enjoy now and then.

Admittedly, as I began reading I got sucked into the short chapters alternating between Emma and Jane. What I wasn’t prepared for was the graphic sex scenes. At one point I nearly gave up, but  I read on Amazon that the book is soon to be a movie produced by Ron Howard.

I’d just seen an old re-run of The Andy Griffith Show and had lingering fond memories of the good old days. I rationalized Opie, Ron Howard’s sweet innocent character, wouldn’t be involved in anything too scandalous.

Well I’ll let you be the judge of that!

Emma and Jane have multiple things in common: each are looking for a fresh start, both women are in a vulnerable state, neither of them can afford the flat known as One Folgate Street, and both  women have a similar look, one that attracts strange men. Lastly, and most disturbingly, Emma and Jane don’t seem fazed by the fact that the flat they want to rent has a frightening history.

First we meet Emma and her boyfriend Simon as they are filling out an elaborate questionnaire to meet the bizarre qualifications to become renters. Emma is much more engaged than Simon who more or less just goes along. Emma ends her relationship with Simon shortly after the couple moves into One Folgate Street. Emma moves right into a sizzling relationship with One Folgate Street’s owner Edward. The relationship seems a stretch given Emma’s lack of tidiness, something Edward insists upon, but she manages to compromise as she becomes obsessed with her new lover.

Next we are introduced to Jane who takes possession of One Folgate Street after Emma’s mysterious death. Jane must comply as well with the restrictive guidelines required to live in One Folgate and she too ends up in a romantic relationship with Edward. Like Emma, at her own expense.

Edward is a purist, a perfectionist, a minimalist, and even though I didn’t look up the definition of a sociopath in the dictionary, I imagined Edward to fit the mold. Not surprisingly he approaches Jane in the same manner he did Emma.

One Folgate Street is a secure and ultra-modern flat giving both women peace of mind. The house is operated remotely by technology. For example, if one breaks the ‘rules’ the shower will not turn on or turn cold notifying the resident that they have broken a rule. Edward, as I mentioned, has idiosyncrasies about neatness. It is just one of the absolutes that tenants are expected to strictly adhere to.

I’ve not read The Girl on the Train, nor Gone Girl, but I have recently read The Woman in Cabin 10. The Girl Before moves much more quickly and is a page turning mystery thriller. You’ve been warned!

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me by Jennifer Teege

mygrandfatherJennifer was adopted when she was 7. She remembers a little about her birth mother Monika and grandmother Ruth Irene Goeth. She never met her father, a black man from Nigeria.

She always wondered why her mother gave her up. Then, as an adult she finds a book titled I Have to Love my Father, Don’t I? written by her mother, about her grandfather Amon Goeth, a vicious Nazi Commandant.

Jennifer then begins the struggle to try to overcome her guilt and shame and to try to come to terms with what her family had done and who they were.

I was very moved reading this. It was so hard to imagine what I would have done in this situation. I admire the author’s strength in continuing her struggle to make peace with her mother, and her demons.

How it Ends

I can’t imagine being 15 and waking up one morning to find my parents descending on me a with rope in their hands, tying me up, throwing me into a car and driving me to a mental institution. I remember my mom sneaking into my room to check that I was still breathing (this seems to be a thing moms do) and being a little brat and holding my breath to freak her out. But she was checking on me because she was (is) my protector. For Cassie O’Malley there is no one but herself to look to for protection, both physically and mentally.

firsttimeTold in an alternating Now and Then voice, Kerry Kletter’s The First Time She Drowned introduces us to Cassie who has spent the past 2 1/2 years in a mental institution against her will. When she was 15 she woke up to her parents tying her hands and putting her into a car to involuntarily take her to a mental institution. Now at 18 Cassie is a legal adult and wants a normal life. She’s made friends during those 2 1/2 years, especial with James who is her best friend and whom she doesn’t want to leave behind. But she believes she’s prepared for the real world.

In an odd twist, Cassie’s mother has paid for a year of college. Her mother, her father, and her two brothers barely visited her while she was institutionalized and before you start thinking “Oh God, not another crazy teen in a mental ward that is going to teach me about love, heartbreak, and how to hang myself with that package of gummy worms that the kid down the hall gets in a care package every month from his mother” this is not that kind of book. Not too far into the novel you start to figure out that it’s Cassie’s mother who is at the heart of the abuse and the accusations of mental instability. Think of a mother character from a Gillian Flynn book, just with only one or two attempts at killing a child.

Cassie begins her first week at college in her solitary room, unsure how to make friends. She has pneumonia and spends the week drifting in and out of consciousness. Finally, she drags herself out of her room and to the door of a girl she noticed on her first day and collapses. Of course, they become best friends. Someone passing out in your doorway kind of bonds them to you. Or you get a restraining order. But Cassie sometimes overthinks the friendship and the things Zoey does are alien to her.

Thinking she’s going to experience a normal college life, Cassie dives right in and quickly realizes she is so not ready. Her mother, who she hasn’t really seen in the 2 1/2 years she was in the institution, pops in and out of her life, confiding the weirdest and most inappropriate things to her daughter. Not inappropriate like “When your father and I went to Hawaii and he wanted to scuba diving I was all for it. Then that morning he had diarrhea like you wouldn’t believe. I’ve never seen so many panicked fish. Our instructor got a few pictures of it and I’m thinking about using it as our Christmas card this year.” Reading further, there are many “aha!” moments where you discover the mother should have been put away for a couple of years.

If you like novels about crazy families (and I don’t mean kooky families but families that become a legend down the bloodline) read The First Time She Drowned. I never felt so normal and sane. Most terrifying five minutes of my life.