Saturday, February 01, 2014

it hasn't come to jalapeño poppers yet, or: what i read in december and january

The other day a Facebook friend of mine posted that she was excited for the lunar new year because she needed a do-over on her resolutions. I’m always angling for the same. I’ve been doing okay with my resolutions (although how can it be time to wash my car again ALREADY?), but January left me ragged and exhausted. With my brain attending to two different jobs—and certainly not my writing—I had newfound sympathy for AK, who’s been dividing her time between her paying gig and her therapist hours for almost two years now. I experienced that constant shifting of worlds when I was a working grad student, and it’s a bit of what I was getting at with The Commuters, but back then I had more energy and lived off jalapeño poppers from Jack in the Box. 

I think jalapeño poppers might be some kind of official rock bottom in the self-care department.

Official handing-off of P&W office keys to new assistant Brandi.
Jamie put together a lovely sendoff for me on Wednesday, with as many West Coast P&W people as she could amass (so, Andrew, Brandi and Linda). We drank dark beer that tasted like roasted marshmallows and I only almost cried. The last couple of hours by myself in the office were stranger and more somber, as I read through old emails and took postcards off the wall. It felt spooky, like attending my own funeral or something.

I told Jamie that I suspected people in the building, who’d seen me bald a few months back, might casually speculate on my absence and think, Oh, I guess that woman finally died.

Nope. Just across town writing grants that come flying at me like torpedoes in a video game. Watching kids get tattoos removed from their faces and knuckles. Stepping aside so a Dodger can clean my desk on Dodger volunteer day. It’s an odd and awesome place to work so far.

I’m taking the train to work now (cue angels singing), so I won’t be gulping down books on CD like I once did, and I only get to read for four stops. Eventually I hope the shorter commute will translate to more writing time, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m trying to be patient rather than panicky. It’s the year of the horse. They seem like patient animals.

Here’s what I read in December and January:

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn: This quickly became the book I wanted to ignore all other things to read. It's mystery ripped from the headlines of the eighties: ritual satanic abuse--a witch hunt which I remember, having grown up a mile from the McMartin preschool--and the farm crisis, which I knew nothing about as a suburban Californian. Flynn rips at the headlines to reveal the individuals behind them, especially Libby Day, who has lived most of her life believing her brother murdered her mother and sisters. Libby is a believably traumatized adult; rather than being dragon tattoo-tough, she's reticent and lazy, a shoplifter who can never rouse herself to sign up for internet service. Flynn's strength is creating gray-area characters, and then using those gray areas to build a tight page-turner of a plot--that "character-driven thriller" that many writers aim for and few achieve. Libby can only solve the story of her family by choosing not to become them in small and important ways.

Flynn is also great with description (a woman has "administrative hair" and plastic bags drift "like the ghosts of small things"), even if she could occasionally pull back. I could have done without the part where the protagonist is cornered by the murderer and barely escapes with her life--and a few more concessions to genre at the very end--but it was a small price to pay for a great read.

It does, though.
Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg: This quick read, about a suburban transplant who convinces her fellow high school oddballs to form a guerrilla art collective, has some familiar YA tropes (cool kids and outcasts, unrequited love) and some unexpected twists (protagonist Jane INTENTIONALLY seeks out weirdos, while the weirdoes themselves each have a separate clique they want to be part of). The post-911 setting, and especially Jane's mother's fear, are nicely handled. The "art saves" message isn't subtle--"art saves" is actually stamped on some of the pages--but it's touching and true.

The Beach by Alex Garland: An adventurous book about adventurous people. I'm not one of them--my idea of getting away from it all is going to a cabin in New Hampshire with communal dinners and nightly Skype sessions with my loved ones. Building my own society (without antibiotics, plumbing or even campfires) on a remote beach in Thailand sounds like a nightmare that only a spoiled, hopelessly idealistic asshole would actually fantasize about. But I nevertheless enjoyed this ride.

Garland somehow climbs deep into existential caverns regarding the nature of conflict and humanity without developing any of the individual characters in much detail. I think he's concerned with how people can fight to protect a way of life at the expense of life itself, perhaps as the US did in Vietnam. The Vietnam war allegory confused me, the love triangle is as weak as its female point, the other females in the book are pretty meh or diabolical, the only Thai characters are grunting Viet Cong stand-ins and I'm not sure if the narrator is supposed to seem like a sociopath or not. All of which makes it sound like I didn't like the book. But I did. It's ambitious and unpretentious, unusual and smartly plotted. Come on in, the water's fine.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: A strange, compelling little novella--and I say "little" in part because the story clings so tightly to its narrator and her circumscribed surroundings. Jackson's writing is a case study in how not to tell too much, and how to make the everyday creepy. Narrator Merricat and her sister Constance have barricaded themselves in their home (first figuratively, later literally) ever since most of their family mysteriously died of arsenic poisoning. A court has acquitted Constance; the town has not. I want to say Merricat is OCD, maybe a little autistic, and that she and Constance are most certainly codependent (luckily Jackson knows better than to pathologize). Constance's love of cooking at first seems wholesome and nurturing, and then like a desperate, blindered coping mechanism. Jackson's brilliance is in gently tipping such scales, from innocent to devilish, and sometimes--as with the harassing townspeople--back again.

1 comment:

Claire said...

I'm glad you're enjoying the new job (I think that talk was a couple of posts down). I'd been wondering how it was going and thought to myself, check her blog! (Ever since I switched to Feedly which wouldn't work for me except on Chrome which I don't use for anything else, it's kept me from obsessively losing swaths of time every day but also means I fall behind more often.)

I didn't know The Beach (the movie) was based on a book. I saw it mainly because I loved the Moby song in the trailer and I'm a Tilda Swinton fan. And it was only $2. I miss the discount theater in Tallahassee.