"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Review #8: Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman

I picked up Domestic Violets in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble and opened to the first page, where our hero Tom Violets was deep in the middle of a conversation with his penis, desperately trying to give it a pep talk, because his wife was waiting in the bedroom, dressed in Victoria's best, and his little buddy was not cooperating. If my penis were a writer/director, it would be Woody Allen - small, neurotic, and, frankly, hit or miss. Just as things are - er, looking up - burglar noises drift up the stairs, and Tom is forced to postpone sex and go downstairs to confront the danger, only to find his father, the famous novelist Curtis Violets, slightly drunk, rummaging through his fridge, because his most recent wife just threw him out. 

So begins the story of Tom Violets, a writer trapped in a corporate drone's body. He puts in time at the office, rolling his eyes at buzzwords words like leverage (which, as an aside, doesn't mean what all those people think it means) and synergy (which I saw THREE TIMES in an email this week, and again, doesn't mean what all those people think). The job pays the bills, and pays them pretty well, but Tom's true dream is to become a writer. He's married to a beautiful, smart, and very literary woman, but he's feeling the seven-year-itch, and suspects that she is, too. He's got a crush on his assistant copywriter, the beautiful and young Katie, who has just enough of a touch of manic pixie dream girl to get the point across. 

In short order, Tom's father wins the Pulitzer, Tom's wife is maybe flirting with the idea of having an affair, Tom himself is maybe flirting with the idea of Katie, he quits his job, his mother leaves his stepfather, Gary, and he realizes that his book is good, but that he's also emulating his father, which calls in to question everything he thought about himself as a writer. Plus, his archenemy was promoted when Tom quit and his dog has acute anxiety, but at least his best friend, who is a physician, is willing to keep him in Viagra samples, not that it does him any good, since he and his wife never manage to be in the mood at the same time. It's a lot to handle, but Tom does so with humor and aplomb. And there's a touch of sweetness in amongst the humor as well. At one point, Tom, his father, and Gary are all living in Tom's house together, with only Tom's five year old daughter Allie as female companionship, and it's pretty apparent to all involved that Allie's the only one who has her shit together, but Tom and Curtis and Gary are definitely making a valiant effort. "Somewhere in the third act," he says, "women like her save characters like you and me from ourselves."

Norman's writing is crisp and funny, and his humor is smart and witty. This isn't high literature, but it's definitely worth a read. 

“When you're having sex again, it makes you wonder why you weren't before. What could possibly have been bad enough to make you stop doing THAT?” 

Review #7: Descent, by Tim Johnston

Boss read Descent about a year ago and praised it quite a bit, but I dismissed it because the way he described it didn't really hold my interest. He gave me the basic premise and just kept telling me that it was good, but I wasn't in the market for a mystery or a thriller, and so I shrugged it off as we tend to not always have the same taste in books. But then I was at Barnes & Noble recently, and nothing else was really doing it for me, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

And boy, was it worth it. 

Descent is the story of the Courtland family - husband Grant, wife Angela, and children Caitlin and Sean - who are in the Rocky Mountains for a last family vacation before Caitlin leaves for college. Caitlin is a championship runner, and early one morning she goes for a long run in the mountain with Sean trailing on his bike. Shortly afterwards, Grant gets a call that Sean has been found injured on the side of the road. Caitlin is nowhere to be found. Immediately the search party goes out, but she is gone.

Caitlin's disappearance tears in to the fabric of the family in countless ways. Grant refuses to leave Colorado, and eventually, the sheriff installs him in the guest house on his father's ranch, although the reader is never quite sure whether Grant is supposed to be caring for the invalid father, or whether the father is supposed to be keeping an eye on Grant. After recovering from his injuries, Sean leaves school and winds up hitchhiking back and forth across the country, going dark for months before surfacing again to his father, and then taking off again. And Angela, back home at her sister's while Grant remains in California, lets go of reality a little bit more every day. 

Johnston's writing is tense and powerful, both in the heart-racing moments and in the quiet afterwards of the destruction that gets played out over and over again on the page, and more than once I found myself letting out a breath I didn't know I was holding. The word gut-wrenching can be used to describe more than a handful of scenes, and it would have been easy to overdo that, but Johnston plays it exactly perfectly, This is a raw and emotional novel. If I have one quibble, it's this: SPOILER - I didn't love the way he redeemed the no-good brother of the sheriff, but I'm also not sure what else he could have done with those scenes. 

“One speck of difference in the far green sameness and he would stare so hard his vision would slur and his heart would surge and he would have to force himself to look away—Daddy, she’d said—and he would take his skull in his hands and clench his teeth until he felt the roots giving way and the world would pitch and he would groan like some aggrieved beast and believe he would retch up his guts, organs and entrails and heart and all, all of it wet and gray and steaming at his feet and go ahead, he would say into this blackness, go ahead god damn you.” 

Read this. But don't go running in the mountains any time soon.

Review #6: A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby

It's tough to write about suicide and not glamorize it or, alternately, vehemently condemn it. Most of the time, suicidal characters have Big Trauma in their lives, and so, to some extent, their desire to end their lives is understandable, at least from a literary point of view. Or on the other side of the coin, suicide is used as a tool to show how selfish a character is, to show the destruction left behind, and the character is vilified. But in A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby manages to straddle both sides of the argument, and he does so in a fresh and compelling way.

The story opens on New Year's Eve, with Maureen, the single mom of a permanently disabled son, on the roof of a building, poised to jump. Maureen has forgotten a ladder, though, and she needs one to get over the barrier to the edge. She spies Martin, who hasn't forgotten his ladder, and is already over the barrier. Martin is a failed television news personality who got caught schtupping an underaged girl, went to prison, lost his family, and now works for the equivalent of the open access cable channel. Martin offers Maureen both his ladder and a few moments of privacy, but before she can jump, Jess, a young girl whose father happens to be the minister of education, arrives, and while Martin and Maureen are talking her out of jumping just to make a point to her jerk of an ex-boyfriend, another troubled soul, named JJ, shows up. JJ is a failed American musician - he followed his girlfriend over the pond and then she ran off with his bandmate - and was at the building delivering New Year's Eve pizzas when he decided suicide sounded like a better answer, but since he feels like that excuse is lame, he tells Martin, Maureen, and Jess that he has an incurable disease. After much discussion and hand-wringing, they decide as a group to postpone the suicide and to meet again in 90 days and reevaluate their decisions. After all, they decide, they have nothing to lose by waiting.
Hornby allows all four characters to have their own point of view, and while it can feel a little bit schizophrenic at times, it also adds an interesting dimension to the story that really works well, and this technique does the additional duty of letting the reader know that each of these four narrators is extremely unreliable. Hornby never repeats the scene, but he often stops mid-sentence - mid-word even at times - and picks up about three seconds earlier with another character's narrative. It's an unusual style and one that sounds kind of horrible and disjointed, but one that I actually really liked.
One by one, we learn about each character's backstory. Martin, the television newscaster, is smarmy and oily, but really wants to be a good man and a good father, and yet somehow manages to fail at just about every turn. On the surface, Jess seems like the typical troubled and angry young girl, but as the novel proceeds, the reader learns that she's also heartbroken over the unsolved disappearance of her sister, and feels unloved and forgotten by her family. JJ is a lost soul - directionless and aimlessly wandering about and going through the same existential crisis that a lot of us dealt with in our mid-twenties. But it was Maureen who tore my heart apart. Maureen is the young single mother of a boy named Matty and her whole life is devoted to Matty's care. But Matty will never grow up, never communicate, never walk. It's never really discussed in the book, Matty's disability, but clearly Maureen wants him to have as normal a life as possible, and yet she knows he, and she, never will. It's an endless cycle of hope and despair and she's just so resigned and I felt just awful for her, more so than I have for a character in a very long time. Hornby could have very easily overplayed Maureen and her story, but every note is perfect. All of the characters are, actually - even the supporting characters that float in and out. 
The more time I spend away from this book, the more I like it. When I first closed the final page, I was very much neutral about it. I liked it, but I felt like it wasn't really anything to write home about. Now, though, a month or more has passed (cause I'm an awesomely timely review writer!) and I find myself thinking about a reread, just to catch all the things I missed on the first go round. And maybe to hope that Maureen is less sad this time.
“Once you stop pretending that everything's shitty and you can't wait to get out of it...then it gets more painful, not less. Telling yourself life is shit is like an anesthetic, and when you stop taking the Advil, then you really can tell how much it hurts, and where, and it's not like that kind of pain does anyone a whole lot of good."
“I had wanted to kill myself, not because I hated living, but because I loved it. And the truth of the matter is, I think that a lot of people who think about killing themselves feel the same way. They love live but it's all fucked up for them. We were up on that roof because we couldn't find a way back into life, and being shut out of it like that...It just fucking destroys you, man.” 

Reviews # 2 - 5: A Jennifer Crusie Binge

I went on a Jennifer Crusie binge a few weekends ago. I wanted it to be a Gilmore Girls binge, but instead, my kid wanted to have a Friends binge, and since I already know that Ross is going to pick Rachel over the bald girl who is married to Ben Stiller in real life, I needed something I could read even though the tv was on. Hence, Jennifer Cruise. Plus, she was a free download from the library. And it was cold out. So I binged. And didn't get dressed. It was actually kind of nice.

Anyway, back to Jen. I sped-read through four of her early novels, and the thing about reading authors like that is you realize (duh) that they have a formula. It's not a great formula, but it must work because I kept going. So here's the run down, in no particular order, other than that's how I pulled them from my reader.

In Trust Me On This, we meet Dennie Banks, who is a reporter for a small town newspaper. Desperate to break a big story (the divorce of her mentor), she conspires to meet her at a conference. At the same time, Alec Prentice is looking to take down a con artist who likes to swindle old ladies out of their money with some land in Florida. There is - of course - a meet-cute, a case of mistaken identity (Alec thinks Dennie is working with the con man), and some sex that involves ice cream. Dennie eventually has to leave Alec to figure things out, but comes back six weeks later and they live happily ever after. (There's also a really cute B-story involving Alec's boss Harry and his aunt, and I think I liked it better than Dennie and Alec.) Three stars, mainly for the B-story.

Charlie All Night introduces us to Allie McGuffey, a radio producer who just lost her boyfriend and her job, because she (stupidly) worked for her boyfriend, and he traded her in for a younger model. Charlie Tenniel shows up on the same day to take over the all night spot, and Allie is his new producer. Except Charlie isn't really a DJ; his dad is friends with the radio station owner, and apparently there is something rotten going on at WBBB, and Charlie's been tasked with discovering it. I guess Charlie is some sort of private investigator? I'm not really sure. Jen was unclear. Anyway, Allie and Charlie have a meet-cute (of course), some hot sex, some witty repartee with Allie's gay roommate, there's some radio-station drama, and there's an orphaned puppy that only sucks on the bottle when Billy Joel is playing. The big mystery going on at the radio station turns out to be the owner's son is growing pot and selling it to the old ladies in town to help with their chemotherapy nausea, which was sweet, but pretty anti-climactic if you ask me. And of course Alie's boyfriend (Mark? Roger? I can't remember) wants her back, but she decides to stay with Charlie and they have puppies and it's adorable. Except...Jen couldn't remember if Allie's name was Allie or Alice and kept switching it mid-story, which kind of irritated me. Two and a half stars, mainly cause the heat wasn't all that hot.

What the Lady Wants brings us Mitch Peabody, a stockbroker who bet that he couldn't make a go of a private investigator business and have it running in the black within a year. He's 363 days in to the year and $2300 short when Mae Belle Sullivan walks through his door, dressed in a pink suit complete with a veil a la the Maltese Falcon. Mae is convinced her uncle was murdered, even though he was 75 and died in the arms of his 25 year old mistress. Mae writes Mitch a check, effectively winning his bet for him, and Mitch agrees to take the case. The mob gets involved in the form of one of Mae's other uncles, it turns out the dead uncle got married to a shrew of a woman just before he died (and not the mistress), and, oh yeah, all the money is gone. The police suddenly suspect Mae, there's a big hostage situation, and the real killer turns out to be the mistress (duh). Three stars.

Manhunting brings Kate Svenson to a resort tucked in to the Kentucky countryside. Apparently it's The Place to meet eligible men, and since Kate has decided it's time to get married, that's where she goes. Except all the men are dolts. Sure, they are good looking and they are wealthy, but they're all kind of dull and jerky. (Actually, they're like Ronald in The Paper Bag Princess.) Except for Jake Templeton, the silent partner who doubles as the handyman, and who also spends every morning fishing on the lake with Kate. But Kate doesn't want Jake - she's here to get herself a city boy. Except...Jake's awfully tempting. And she has fun bartending at the dive bar in town. And back to Jake being awfully tempting. What's a girl to do but run away for awhile, figure it out, and come back. Issues with this book include the fact that Kate is an up-and-coming financial wizard and yet is able to leave her job for two weeks, the other guys at the resort are a little bit rapey (although Kate can clearly handle herself, but it's still kind of icky), and the first night Kate goes to the local bar, she winds up bartending and is awesome at it. Anyone who has spent any time waiting tables and/or bartending knows that it's hard, and it takes a bit to get the groove. But in the end, of course, Jake proposes (with a fish ring) and Kate says yes. Two stars, mainly because of the aforementioned weird rapey feelings. And the whole shopping for a husband set up.

Review #1: How to be Good, by Nick Hornby

Me: Hey, can I borrow this?
JB: Sure.
Me: How was it?
JB: I dunno. I never read it.

This from the man who reads everything. That should have been my first warning.

From Nick Hornby comes what all the fancy newspapers called "a page turner" (Washington Times) and "fearless" (San Francisco Chronicle), but what I call a slow slog of a mess about two pretty horrible people - actually, make that two and a half - and the breakdown of their marriage.

Katie Carr is a doctor living in a gentrified part of London, married to David, who is a columnist in possession of an acerbic wit, and has two young children, Tom and Molly. On the surface, they're doing fine: they have a nice house, Katie's bringing home a decent paycheck, Tom and Molly certainly don't want for the latest electronic, and Katie feels that, as a doctor, she's helping the world and is generally a good person. That is until the day that she has an affair with a man named Stephen, and realizes she's unhappy in her marriage. She eventually confesses to David, and rather than David granting her the divorce that she asks for, he instead has a come to Jesus moment where he realizes that he needs to be a better person, giving up his column, taking in a nut job named DJ GoodNews who apparently healed David's bad back with good thoughts, and forcing the children to give all their possessions to the abused women's shelter. Oh, and insisting that the neighbors each take in a homeless teenager to help solve the world's problems. Katie, thrown for quite the loop in the face of David's seemingly total 180, eventually moves out (but only for a month, and only at night, because she doesn't want the kids to know), and tries to reevaluate her marriage. Katie eventually moves back in, GoodNews is given six months to get out, and they decide to make a go of it. The end.

I had about eleventy billion issues with this book and I don't even know where to begin. From the reviews I read, I think it was meant as an exploration of what it means to be "good". Are we good if we donate to the soup kitchen at Thanksgiving, or are we only good if we donate all year and volunteer there, even in the summer months? Are we good people if we go to church, or are we only good if we go to church and really, truly believe? Are we good if we stay in a toxic marriage for the sake of the kids and our vows? And if we aren't good, are we then, by definition, bad? How can we quantify "goodness"? And I suppose the book did explore those themes, but my word, I couldn't get past the characters. Not a single one of them were in any way likable. Not even Tom and Molly, who, as children, weren't really all that terrible, but by the end of the story, I wanted to slap every single person involved. Every single one!

I don't know. Perhaps I project too much of my own experiences on to what I read. But this book - to me, anyway - was more about the breakdown of a marriage and the complete and utter apathy of the two people involved than it was about how to be "good". David comes across as kind of a jerk in the beginning, and then, even though he's supposed to have turned "good", he becomes an even bigger jerk as the book progresses. I can't remember the last time I read such a selfish and myopic character. And although Katie professed to love David, or even the idea of David, I got the feeling that deep down, she didn't care whether he stayed or left. And while it's difficult at times to like your children, as any parent can attest, I never felt anything resembling affection from Katie towards the kids, and even, at times, felt like she would have been perfectly fine walking away were it not for the social and professional stigma of abandoning your children.

If Hornby meant to write about a marriage falling apart, or on the verge of falling apart, there are ways to do that (Landline, Indiscretion, and We All Sleep in the Same Room come to mind). If Hornby meant to write a book about what it means to be "good", there are ways to do that, too. This, however? Not one of them.