Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel



Photo: from the author's webpage and bio section.  It's on her latest books, too.  And in Entertainment Weekly, which says that her newest, Station Eleven, is "the must-read of the fall."  I don't doubt that it is.  I love her writing, from her first book, reviewed here, to her online essays.  Good writing is good writing, no matter the form or the genre.

An exquisitely-written, stays-with-you little gem of a book, more about the people who are left behind than about the people who leave.

Very short, at 220 pages, but very deep about obsession, depression, leaving and staying behind.  The characters are all representatives, of course, more than they are flesh-and-blood, exactly, which made me hate Lilia a little less at the end, when we learn in the last few sentences of the book that she lived happily-ever-after (mostly) after all, despite all the (mostly unintentional, but c'mon) heartbreak she left in her wake.

But she has been thrown through a window, seen a man driven off the road, seen a woman pulverized by a subway train, and she never had a lasting friendship or relationship until she married in her late-20s after finally staying somewhere--in this case, Italy.  Some reviews hated on her character, and I could see their point, especially how this waif with tight dark hair just so easily grabbed relationships with men and women (bisexuality is hinted at in the book)--and all she has to do to get them is to read in cultured little coffeeshops...  Yet, I don't doubt that there are a lot of Lilias out there, and that there are indeed affected women who sit in coffeeshops all the time, and bookish male intellectuals trip over themselves to be with them.  Plus, looking at the author's picture, I think it might be a bit of a self-description.  Maybe a little Freudian analysis is necessary here.  But I digress...

Lilia is representative of a type, and not full-blooded, so I ultimately gave her a pass.  After awhile of thinking about it.  Plus, I'd sit down next to her in a coffeeshop...

But all the characters are this way.  They're representative, and many of them come off far worse than she.  There's the aforementioned mother who threw her young child out the window...which was closed, by the way.  And she left the child in the winter snow to freeze, too.  Luckily that didn't happen--the freezing, I mean. 

Then there's the detective father who is the real obsessive of the book.  He leaves his wife and daughter for weeks, months and, yes, years at a time, to track down Lilia and her father, long after her abduction ceased to be worth tracking down.  (She's in her 20s, and plus she was better off away from the free-throwing mother.)  This guy's wife leaves him, then he leaves his 15-year old daughter alone as he again obsessively tracks Lilia down.  Ultimately he ends up returning to his young daughter for a short time, but then he leaves again and disappears forever from her life.  It's possible he commits suicide somewhere. 

This girl, his daughter, quits school, which he doesn't notice, and eventually befriends Lilia, and then her ex- (who Lilia leaves at the beginning and who tracks her down in Montreal, in a fashion, but he actually latches on to this guy's grown-up daughter, kinda gets obsessed with her for two weeks and never really seems that intent to find Lilia...) and then she becomes a stripper, learns something even more unsettling about her father, and then kills herself.

She's the real victim here.

The above paragraph may make the book sound like a soap opera, but it's really not.  In lesser, untalented hands, this would have been a real mess, and worthy of mockery and lampooning--but it's in great hands, and really stylishly and compactly written.  It's not my kind of book, normally, but there's huge buzz right now about Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, so I wanted to read her early stuff first.  I also read a couple of her online articles--one about NYC's reaction to Ebola before the doctor got sick there--and those were very well-written as well.

You've got to read this one.  For the writing.  For the interweaving structure.  For what it says about those who leave.  And for what it shows about those who are left.

It's well-constructed, a bit haunting and lyrical, and it'll stay with you.  It'll resonate.

And, oh yeah--Don't go to Montreal in the winter.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Cheap Shot--Book Review


Photo: The book's hardcover...cover?  From its Goodreads page.

Another good, compulsively-readable entry into the series by Atkins.

There's not much here you haven't seen before if you've read the others by Parker and Atkins.  But this one still stands apart from the others because of its purposely scattered structure.  Spenser's all over the place, from Boston to NYC and back again.  He speaks to old characters (Gerry Broz runs a fish store?!?), only some of whom are actually useful for this case.

This is the one startling aspect of this book.  Old, non-regular characters either come up (Broz; Tony Marcus; Ty-Bop) or are brought up (Rachel Wallace; April Kyle) simply to stir them up in the readers' minds.  Doing this could've led to disaster, almost like name-dropping, but Atkins handles it well.  It doesn't distract.  It adds.

This one reads a little more gritty, a little more true-to-life.  This is also different than many, but not all, of Parker's.  His often tended to get wrapped up neatly.  The better ones, now that I think about it, didn't end that way: Looking for Rachel Wallace and April Kyle's second (and last) come to mind.

Who-dun-it is not a surprise, exactly, although I was a little surprised about how it suddenly came to a head.  I mean this in a good way.  It makes sense, and the reader and Spenser were kind of heading there, but it all gets sidetracked, as did Spenser, as does the reader.  So when the ending happens, it all makes sense, and isn't really surprising, and yet it was a nice, little twist at the same time.

In a gritty, realistic kind of way.  Would it really happen that way?  The motel room?  The trunk?  Yes, I believe it really could happen that way.  But in the trunk?  Yes, because he just didn't care.  (I won't reveal the end, so you'll just have to read it to fully grasp what I'm talking about.)  Would it have ended that way in Parker's hands?  Nope.  But that's okay.

It works.  That's all that matters.  Things change.  People change.

And, often, they don't change.  The bad ones, when they get really pissed, tend to stay that way.  And then they do bad things.  And then everything sort of goes to hell.

Sometimes that kind of thing ends well.  Other times--I'm thinking Cormac McCarthy here--they don't.  As it is in real life as well.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

American Horror Story--Freakshow--Edward Mordrake, Part 1--Episode 3



Photo:  It's all over the net, but I got it from http://verumfabula.wordpress.com/2012/08/26/the-curious-case-of-edward-mondrake/

Some quick thoughts about this good episode:

--Michael Chiklis's Strongman (aka--Dell Toledo) never got around to telling his wife he was sorry to hear she was dying.

--Very nice opening with Ethel and her doctor.  I would imagine that alcohol would've killed a lot of carnival workers / "freaks" back in the day.

--Speaking of alcohol, the commercials pushing it during this episode: Coors, Yuengling, Jack Daniels, Sam Adams.  I think there were more.  That's just off the top of my head.

--Emma Roberts' fortune teller will end up actually being able to tell the future.  That's my prophecy, if you will.

--Sarah Paulson's Bette and Dot wouldn't have shared the same dream.  They have two heads and therefore two brains.  Of course, that's where the dreams are.  But it's nice symmetry to make it that way, anyway, especially if it's a nice dream for one and a nightmare for the other.  If the operation does happen, the one to survive will be the one who thought it was a nightmare, naturally.  And she'll act like she's the other one.

--Why is everyone talking about salaries and jobs?  And raises?  No customers = no money.

--Jessica Lange's (second) song montage was like a bad 80s video: people walking around aimlessly in a thick mist for no reason at all.

--How did Elsa Mars summon Edward Mordrake?  The story, as told by Kathy Bates, was that a performance on Halloween will produce him.  But Elsa Mars didn't perform--she practiced.  (Again, no customers.)  A rehearsal is not a performance.  At least, not from what I recall from my Philosophy of Art class, anyway.  Doesn't a performance mandate an audience?

--Why couldn't Kathy Bates's Ethel Darling just shave very, very often?  I'm just sayin'.

###  The remaining portion of this entry can be found on my American Horror Story Freak Show blog.  Thanks for reading.  Incidentally, which character on the show do you find the creepiest?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

You Know You're A Homeowner When...


Photo: A window in my house.  Notice the wooden shims holding up the second pane of glass so there's no open space between the plastic molding of the storm window and the top of the windowframe.

You know you're a homeowner (of an older house) when...


--you think wooden shims are the bomb.


--and you have hundreds of them throughout the house, in use (like in the pic above) and in storage.


--you've just spent $45 on steel wool, window insulation and caulking.


--you spent an hour walking through the house, studying the perimeters of your windows and doors to see where you need to use that stuff.


--and you've spent an hour or so stuffing steel wool into the gaps between the just-now-rotting wood of your shed and the cement of the shed floor. 


--and you've recently spent an hour or so stuffing steel wool into the gaps between your garage doors and the cement floor of your garage.


--and you've done that more to keep out the damn mice than to keep in the winter heat.


--you start saving money in the beginning of the fall to pay for the winter heating bills.


--you actually pay attention when someone prophecies how warm or cold the upcoming winter will be.


--you feel damn proud of yourself for cleaning out just enough garage space to get your car in there.


--you're happy to hear that two dead mice were found in your shed because last winter they ate your backyard work gloves to shreds and pooped all over the second and third shelves.


--you sing the praises of house spiders because they kill smaller bugs--but they also let you know where the unseen drafts are in your house.  (They'll build their webs there, and you'll see the webs shimmer slightly in the draft.)


--you have a handyman on speed-dial.


--and your landscaper, too.


--and the guy in charge of the water heater and pipes, too.


--and the guy in charge of the heating oil, too.


--you make sure you can pay the mortgage before you think about the next food shopping bill.  (Because you know the old ladies across the street will give you enough bagels, crackers and cheese to hold you over.)


--you realize you're a wood hoarder.  (I have more wood than you'll find in many small forests.)


--you can write a long-ish blog entry about the idiosyncratic things you do when you own a house.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Walking Dead




Photos: from The Walking Dead's website via AMC.

My blog for The Walking Dead, Season Five, is now up.  Below is an excerpt of the latest blog entry.  To read the whole thing, click here or click the Walking Dead tab above.

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The obliteration of peoples in the future might go something like this.

Actually, no.  Let me re-phrase.  This institutional evil has already happened in real history.

When Gareth strolls in with his clipboard and demands an account of bullets fired at Rick's group, he immediately stops the action--which, in this case, was some guy about to slaughter Glen with a hefty-looking aluminum bat, and then cut his throat over a trough.

He asks for the number of bullets fired at Rick's group.  He's got a clipboard and a checklist.  With more time and fewer commercial breaks, might he have asked about the weapons taken from them, or other valuable items?  I think so.  Three swords?  Check.  Six guns?  Check.  No where's that bag?

In World War II Germany, "valuable items" would've been defined as paintings, gold (including gold teeth, or haven't you seen the same documentaries I have?), silver, china, art.  Any metal to be melted down to use as bullets, tanks, etc. for the German war effort.  In a Zombie Apocalypse, "valuable items" would be defined as weapons and bullets.

Did a Jew at Auschwitz live a few seconds longer as a soldier answered a superior's similar question?  Did this soldier keep the gun pressed against a prisoner's head as he said, "Five gold teeth and two works of art taken from this prisoner, sir," in German, to his superior officer, who was standing over him at the time with clipboard and pencil in hand?

Yes.  Yes, I believe that could have happened.

But real life isn't TV.  So then the gun would've fired.

Systematically.  Impersonally.  Just taking inventory.

Institutional evil.  I wish I could take credit for that phrase, but I heard it on Talking Dead later.  Probably it's been a phrase widely used, at least since World War II.

I write this because some have already remarked that the people in Sanctuary got more than they deserved.  That Sanctuary Mary (Denise Crosby, from Pet Sematary and other 80s movies, if you're as old as I am) didn't deserve what she got.  This was, in fact, a poll question during Talking Dead.

So this blog entry is written to those 25% to 30% of the viewers who texted in with a "Yes, the Sanctuary People got more than they deserved.  After all, they were a group like Rick's, and they got raped and beaten and killed.  They were just trying to stay alive.  You're either the butcher or you're the cattle, right?"

Because this is exactly what the Germans thought at the end of World War I.  They'd been bombed and obliterated.  Berliners were starving.  Diseased.  Dying.  And a few of them were really pissed off.  They were just trying to stay alive.  They were tired of being the cattle.  Better to be butchers.

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To read the rest of this blog entry, or to read a few entries from The Walking Dead's previous season, please click here.  Or click on the Walking Dead Season 5 tab above.  Thanks.

As always, please feel free to comment.