Night Terrors

The internet ruins everything. Sometimes the kinder sites about movies, television shows and books will state in bold letters SPOILERS, meaning if you read ahead be prepared for something to be ruined. Those are the polite ones. Other sites seem to revel in spoiling books and movies for people so that you’re half way through an article and then: boom! You find out one of your favorite TV characters died in last night’s episode that you haven’t even watched yet. The only thing the internet is good for is for looking at pictures of puppies and kittens and dads getting hit in the nards by four-year-olds armed with whiffle bats.

I had heard the hype surrounding Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes: that the book was one hell of a trip and that once you think you have it figured out you’ll find out you don’t. At all. I purposefully ignored reviews about the book because I knew someone would let something slip and that would be it. That’s why my book blogs are frustrating to write because I want to write about everything that happens but without giving anything away. I can write about Behind Her Eyes without giving anything away. Readers, you have GOT to read this book. What? I have to write more about it? I can’t just say “Read this book. You won’t be sorry?” Geez. Okay.

Louise is a single mom to six-year-old Adam. She’s divorced (her husband left her for a younger woman) and works as a secretary in a psychologist’s office. Most nights she drinks wine at home while watching television but one night she decides to go out and meets a man in a bar and they have an instant connection. Or their bodies do. They have a fumbled kiss or two and that’s it. She fully expects to never see him again.

One of the psychologists in her office retires and a new doctor gets hired. You guessed it. The new doctor is the man she met at the bar and made out with. She’s mortified because he’s married. He and his wife come into the office for a tour and Louise hides in the bathroom. Sounds like something I would do. Then again, I often hide in the bathroom for various reasons so there’s that.

David, the new doctor, tells Louise that he made a mistake, that he’s a married man and he and Louise do the adult thing where they decide to just be co-workers. There’s still an undeniable attraction between the two but Louise has talked herself into being okay spending her nights tucking her son in, drinking a bottle of wine, and then falling asleep only to be woken by night terrors.

In case you don’t know what a night terror is, it’s this: extreme fear while still asleep. People scream, throw their arms around, sometimes they feel as if they can’t move but are still aware of everything happening around them. For Louise, night terrors mean waking up in odd places like beside her sleeping son’s bed staring down at him and not knowing how she got there. The terrors exhaust her and the broken sleep (and bottles of wine) are taking a toll on her.

One day after walking her kid to school, Louise runs into a woman and knocks her down. It’s David’s wife Adele whom Louise recognizes from pictures on David’s desk. Adele is an ethereally beautiful woman with a fragile air about her. She and Louise become tight friends although Louise feels guilty, especially when David comes over one night and yep, they both give in and become lovers.

Adele and Louise meet up constantly for lunch or for a workout at the gym. There’s a lot of wine drinking. I mean A LOT. I don’t drink wine but after reading this book I felt like going out and buying a giant bottle and drinking the whole thing. Then again, the people in this book drink good wine whereas I would feel like I’m splurging on Boone’s Farm.

Adele doesn’t want Louise to tell David they’ve become friends and Louise knows there’s no danger of that. Louise confides in Adele about her night terrors and Adele says she has them too and has had them since she was a little girl. 15 years ago when she was 17 a fire destroyed half of her family’s estate house and killed both her parents. David saved her, burning his arm badly in the rescue. Adele had a breakdown after that and was committed to a ritzy mental institution for a month where she met a young boy named Rob who was in for heroin use. They become closer than close and Adele taught him a technique she learned from a dream book about how to control dreams. He can go anywhere his brain tells him to go in his dreams, she says.

Fast forward almost 15 years and Louise is learning how to control her night terrors thanks to Adele. Her affair with David, meanwhile, is still ongoing and both of them are falling in love with each other. But there’s a coldness to David that scares Louise. One day she sees that Adele has a large bruise on her face. She says that she opened a cupboard door and it smacked her. Louise is suspicious of this. It’s obvious it wasn’t a cupboard door. Did David hit Adele? He can be so cold and he has a drinking problem.

And then there’s the weirdness with Adele always having to have the phone nearby when David calls to check up on her. There’s a cupboard in the kitchen full of pills prescribed by David (antipsychotics, antidepressants, anxiety medication). Enough to make Keith Richard’s heart soar. Or stop. Louise is starting to put together a picture of fragile Adele bullied and medicated by David. She berates herself for falling in love with such a man and still being attracted to him.

Louise has managed to direct her dreams to where she wants them and is no longer having night terrors. It gives her an odd boost of confidence. She breaks things off with David deciding to focus on her friendship with Adele but there are times she wishes she could just dump both of them and have that mess out of her life.

Oh you guys, just when you think you can see which direction this story is going and feel disappointed that the rave reviews were all wrong, the novel takes such a sharp turn you feel like you’ve slipped down a muddy embankment into a pool of murky water filled with bobbing skeletons. Sorry. I just watched Poltergeist the other day and that scene is on my mind. I felt a pang of disappointment reading along and thinking “So this book’s about a lonely single mother who gets it on with a married man but befriends his wife and she has no idea which one is insane? That’s the story?” No. That is so NOT the story. One blurb I read about Behind Her Eyes was right: You will not see the ending coming.

Read this book if you want to wake up at 3 AM, haunted by the ending. I haven’t slept in three days and I’m hiding out in a bathroom.

Heartwood 7:3 – The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

About a year ago, New Directions rereleased Helen DeWitt’s long out-of-print novel, The Last Samurai, which was accompanied by quite a bit of publicity, including this post on LitHub featuring glowing testimonials from various booksellers. But the buzz seemed to die down quickly in the months following, at least in the online spaces I haunt, so here’s my small effort to call attention once again to this remarkable book.

The cover of the reissue features an extreme-wide-angle, upside-down-and-tilted photo of subway cars in The Tube. It almost shouts challenging text ahead, which both increased my anticipation and made me a bit nervous, but I breathed a little easier as I flipped the pages of DeWitt’s Prologue which is immediately immersive, intelligent, and a bit snarky – it ends with a bang, promising great things ahead. I challenge anyone to read the Prologue and not be tempted to dive into the rest of the book.

At its most stripped-down, the story is about a single woman (Sibylla) who is raising and educating a genius child (Ludo) in London. She supports them by doing low-wage data entry work at home – work that is frequently interrupted to field the many questions from her precocious son. I don’t think there are many novels out there that could be considered page-turners which also, in the course of the narrative, explore the rudiments of Greek and Japanese, the educational ideas of John Stuart Mill, the artistry and deeper meanings beneath Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, or touch on such subjects as solid state physics, the principles of aerodynamics, or Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

But a page-turner it is. This is one of those books I could hardly wait to get back to every time I had to leave off reading. That’s not to say, however, that it won’t rub any number of readers the wrong way. I was put off at times by Ludo’s extreme braininess, and by Sibylla’s occasional pedantry and condescension. Others, I imagine, will be skimming the lessons in Greek, Kanji, and the “distributive principle of multiplication.” Stylistically, you should be prepared for paragraphs that simply trail off, a variable use of quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the use of all caps when Sibylla gets worked up (especially against barbarism and the aesthetic excesses of certain writers and painters). And if you respond as I did, you may well come away from this regretting the quality of your own education and feeling that you wasted your youth (though also inspired, somehow, that maybe it’s not too late to catch up).

As Ludo grows up he becomes more obsessed with discovering who his father is, and though Sibylla will not help him with this, he corners her into dropping clues and making slips which he then pursues. With the film Seven Samurai always playing in the background, it may not surprise you to learn that Ludo has narrowed the field down to seven possible candidates. Much of the impetus for Ludo’s wide-ranging study comes from the specialized interests of these seven men, as he prepares himself to potentially encounter his father as a worthy opponent in the spirit of a samurai. The last half of the book includes Ludo hunting down these individuals, and these diverse tales should certainly please readers who enjoy following a character through various adventures and storylines.

I’m not sure how actively I’ll be attempting to teach myself Greek, but you can add my voice to those who found this an ambitious, inspired, unique, and totally successful piece of writing.

To the Bright Edge of the World

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey is as picturesque as the title suggests. This novel will trigger a desire to witness firsthand the rugged wilds of Alaska. It is a mesmerizing story of adventure, mystery, historical fact, and folklore. I didn’t want the book to end! The epic journey begins at Fort Vancouver in Washington Territory and ends in the uncharted territory of the Yukon. Ivey’s book is rife with detail depicting Native American culture, the era of fur traders, and the pioneers.

The year is 1885 and Lieut. Col. Allen Forrester of the U.S. Calvary is commissioned to lead an expedition exploring the uncharted land beyond the Wolverine River. The journey will nearly cost him his life. He leaves behind his young wife Sophia. Sophia had planned to join the men but discovered she was pregnant shortly before the company was set to sail out of Portland harbor. Unwillingly, she takes the doctor’s advice and will not make the journey until many years later. Vibrant, curious, and not given to convention, Sophia discovers an inner strength and talent for wild life photography.

Through a series of letters written as a journal between husband and wife, the most intimate expressions of the heart are revealed: fear, frustration, loss, and the deep longing to see each other.

Set in the present, another series of letters giving an account of the historical expedition are exchanged between Walter Forrester, whose great-uncle was the colonel, and a young museum curator named Joshua living in the remote town of Alpine, Alaska. Through their correspondence a relationship is formed and the details of past and present come to life with actual photographs included.

Ivey’s reimagining of the Forrester’s story, which began over a hundred years ago and briefly describes their short time together, is followed by a beautiful story of courage, endurance, and the power of love. As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed being transported to a different time and an unforgettable place.

Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals

cookwithoutHmmm…. I wanted to write a review that isn’t a review for the cookbook Cook Without a Book: Meatless Meals by Pam Anderson. But any comments I write would be reviewing the book, so that doesn’t work! The principle behind the book is to show you that once you master a cooking formula, you open up a world of variations to help you break free of “cooking BY the book.” The recipes in the book are actually just a suggestion for ingredients and amounts, and you can add or subtract ingredients to accommodate your own tastes. Learn the technique for the item, be it soup, frittata, hash or quiche (just to name a few!), and you can whip up any of these later without dragging out a cook book!

How Cycling Can Save the World

You may think Peter Walker, author of How Cycling Can Save the World, is engaging in hyperbole with the title of his book. But he actually makes a case for cycling curing everything that ails us and the world (and perhaps even washing the dishes when it’s done). Does this seem too much like ‘As Seen on TV?’ Wait, there’s more!

Think roads are too crowded and traffic is too heavy? Imagine if more of us were cycling how much volume in steel would be removed from the roads.

Worried about the environment? Fewer car trips equal less consumption of fossil fuel and improvement in air quality because of the reduction in emissions. Fewer cars need fewer asphalt parking spots leaving more green spaces.

Have you put on a few pounds and need some exercise but don’t feel you have the time? Cycling can use time you spend driving somewhere already, so you arrive at your destination and you’ve had a workout. No worries about going to the gym!

Feel unsafe on a bicycle? More bicycles on the road bring more awareness of cyclists, making the roads safer. Pedestrians become safer too. Walker compares death and accident statistics in countries including the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark. As you can guess, ours are not good. And I hate to tell you, but eating junk food and sitting in front of the tv (and, of course, zombies) are more likely to kill you than a bicycle accident.

Want to get to know your neighbors or build a sense of community? Cycling allows you to see and engage with your surroundings in a more intimate way than glimpsing them out your window as you speed by. You can make more friends, too.

Interested in cycling but maybe a little nervous or hesitant? There’s a group ride this weekend: Tour de EFD. You might enjoy it so much, you’ll be selling your car on Craigslist next weekend.

America Undone

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel….a little itchy and anxious to be honest.

It is possible that I enjoyed myself an inappropriate amount while reading Omar El Akkad’s American War. The title probably betrays this fact, but this is not exactly a delightful romp. Set in the late 21st Century during the second Civil War, this novel 32283423presents an upsetting and eerily plausible portrayal of our near future. Ostensibly this war is fought over a national ban on fossil fuels, but the roots of the conflict creep far deeper into the national psyche, playing on centuries old resentments and cultural differences (but good news – “proud, pacifist Cascadia” is far from the front lines).

American War follows the life of a young woman named Sarat, born into a chaotic South devastated by flooding, famine, war, and the worst elements of humanity. Sarat spends her formative years in a refugee camp, witnessing both the fanatical partisanship of the Southern rebels and the cruel indifference of the Northern war machine. As Sarat grows older, she finds herself drawn into the war that has defined her existence, becoming an agent of death that will help shape history and bring about grave and devastating consequences.

So, yeah, I realize that doesn’t sound terribly cheery, but El Akkad’s deft narrative style sucked me deep into this novel. By mixing Sarat’s story with government dispatches, oral reports, written records and other “source material,” American War had the feel of an upsetting historical account. At the same time I found myself without context, unsure of how events would unfold and where bias existed in the presentation, but still burdened by the full knowledge of these events terrible impact.

Station_Eleven_CoverPerhaps I have a morbid streak as I have always enjoyed dark and disastrous accounts of imagined futures. For me, the immediate comparison for American War is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Like American War, Station Eleven presents our future in stark and frightening terms – it follows a travelling Shakespearean troupe in the years after a viral pandemic devastates humanity, leaving only scattered pockets of survivors in its wake. It also shares American War’s storytelling technique, incorporating various source materials from before, during, and after the height of the catastrophe.

World_War_Z_book_coverI feel compelled to also mention World War Z, by Max Brooks. Please don’t judge this book because of the movie based on it. Designed to be read as an oral history, each section is narrated by a different survivor of a zombie apocalypse, describing responses and containment attempts by different groups across the globe. With this narrative Brooks crafts a book that is as much a consideration of international relations as it is a zombie novel. Rather than a work of horror, this is a novel of logistics and strategy in the face of terrible catastrophe. If you enjoy audiobooks, this title makes a particularly great listen as many talented and diverse voices were cast to portray the book’s narrators.

unwindNow, I’m a Youth Services Librarian and I just talked about three ADULT novels, so I have to plug some YA. The Unwind series by Neal Shusterman takes place after a second American civil war fought over reproductive rights. When partisan militias fight to a stalemate, a compromise is reached. Though abortion is outlawed, unwanted children between ages 13 and 18 can be “unwound,” a process through which they are physically dismantled and recycled for transplants. The justification for this macabre policy is that every part of the unwound teenagers is reused, and therefore the body lives on. I realize that this premise sounds as absurd as it is disgusting, but Shusterman is a masterful writer and takes the time to illustrate how this policy slowly developed at the hands of well-meaning policy makers. By the end of the series it feels a little too plausible for my comfort.

ashfallpb_hiresMike Mullin’s Ashfall also does a superb job portraying societal collapse. Ashfall follows a teen after the (very real) supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park erupts. Spoiler alert: things don’t go well unless you’re a fan of sunless days, endless winter, famine, and roving gangs of cannibals. Despite a whole lot of death and destruction, this is an enjoyable and ultimately hopeful series. Scientists confidently assert that this supervolcano won’t erupt anytime soon. Probably.

136471._SX1280_QL80_TTD_Finally, before I leave to ponder our impending ruin, I just want to mention one graphic novel. Y the Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra follows a twenty something slacker named Yorick and his pet monkey after a mysterious virus leaves them the only two living males of any species. Chaos quickly ensues and it is awesome.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short walk from “great book” to “WE’RE ALL DOOMED.” If you need me, I’ll be taking deep breaths and either hiding under a desk or stockpiling canned goods.

The Book Jumper

Bibliophile: bib·lio·phile \ˈbi-blē-ə-ˌfī(-ə)l\: noun :a person who collects or has a great love of books. SEE ALSO: Carol.

Now that you know my soul, you’ll understand that I initially picked up The Book Jumper by Mechthild Gläser because I was captivated by the gorgeous cover. A teenage girl appears to pop out of the pages of an open book, where she finds a knight made out of story pages. There are swirls of magic, and bright stars pop in contrast against the blue background.

It’s gorgeous. And the story is even more so.

Amy Lennox and her mom have been living in Germany until they abruptly pack what they can and leave for the Scottish island of Stormsay. They’re going to stay with Amy’s maternal grandmother, Lady Mairead, who insists that Amy read while she stays with her at Lennox House. But it’s not just any sort of reading. Amy was born a book jumper and requires training to fulfill her potential–and she’s literally years behind other book jumpers her age.

Book jumpers can jump into the stories inside books and interact with the world contained within. Her training requires that she not interfere with the story, but her curiosity gets the better of her and soon she’s befriending characters and seeing the story from a different angle. However, it’s not all fun and games, as Amy soon learns that someone has been stealing from the books, essential pieces of important stories that will crumble unless everything is returned. To make matters worse, it seems as though Amy may be in danger herself.

Can she trust her fellow students? Has her grandmother gone batty? Or is someone else sneaking into the literary worlds they are sworn to protect at all costs?

I was absolutely delighted with the magic in this world. The training to hone Amy’s book jumper skills is detailed and consistent. I really love when an author can build a magic system that doesn’t contradict itself–that totally takes me out of the story. Between trying to solve the mystery of the literary thefts and wondering if Amy was going to hook up with fellow book jumper Will, I was skipping sleep in favor of turning the pages until there were no more left to turn.

If that wasn’t compelling enough, I started looking at the books around my house and imagining what it would be like to be thrust into the worlds contained inside the bindings. Danger, romance, magic, and adventure would await around every corner. And the same is true for those who read The Book Jumper.

Anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile is going to want to curl up with The Book Jumper. But you might want to keep a paperweight on your copy of Dracula.  You know. Just in case vampires can jump out of books now.