Monday, January 30, 2017

Books #5 and #6: "The Family Plot" and "Bait"

This new idea to review books this year as I finish them has a pro that I thought of and a con that I didn't think of. The pro is, of course, that I'm updating my blog more often, because I read a lot. That was one of my goals with this, as I noticed last year that I wasn't writing as much as I usually do and felt like I was neglecting this space. The con is that some of these entries are going to be really short, and most of my blog is now going to be about books unless I make a concerted effort to stick some other content here. I guess doing that could also turn out to be a pro, eventually?

I'll keep thinking about that.

In the meantime, I finished two books, and don't really have much to say about either one, unfortunately.

A lot of people kept recommending Cherie Priest's The Family Plot as exciting new horror, and a book not to be missed. Local people also seemed a little excited about it because it takes place nearby, in Chattanooga, but now that I've finished it I'm not sure what everyone was so excited about.

The book concerns Music City Salvage, a family architectural salvage business based in Nashville. Augusta Witherow, elderly last survivor of the once wealthy Witherow family, walks into Music City Salvage one day with a fantastic deal: for forty thousand dollars the company can have the Witherow mansion, everything inside, the barn, the carriage house, and everything in both of those buildings as well. Filled with vintage wood, stained glass, antiques, marble fireplaces, hardware, doors, a grand staircase, and whatever's in the attic, the estate is a gold mine that can turn Music City Salvages failing bottom line around, and Dahlia Dutton, the owner's daughter, takes a small crew and two big trucks down to start harvesting whatever they can. And that's when they find the tiny cemetery that Augusta forgot to mention. And the sealed bedroom. And the footprints and handprints all over the dusty, locked house.

This is a haunted house story, but there's nothing really all that interesting here. There are ghosts, family secrets, danger, and what feels like an obligatory dramatic conclusion at night in a thunderstorm with help too far away to reach them, but everything about this feels like it's been done before. Reading this is like watching a horror movie on the SyFy channel: entertaining while it's on, but nothing about it is really new.

Chuck Palahniuk's Bait isn't really new, either, but you'll like it if you like Palahniuk. The stories are interesting, short little bursts of physical and moral squeamishness, and the illustrations are interesting even if I'm not going to color mine in as the book suggests that I should.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Book #4: The Secret History of Twin Peaks

Before I say anything about Book #4 for the year, Mark Frost's The Secret History of Twin Peaks, I'm going to give a warning: I cannot talk about this book without spoiling the book, the past seasons of the show and, possibly, spoiling the upcoming season as well. I'm saying that now so that, if this is important to you, you can go ahead and stop reading now and not have anything spoiled for you.

Spoilers ahead.

Not kidding.

OK, you had your chance. A couple of weeks ago, I read two other Twin Peaks books to get ready for the show coming back to Showtime this year. Not only am I excited enough about that to decide I'm going to get Showtime, but I also picked up "The Secret history of Twin Peaks" to see if it could tell me things I didn't already know. While reading it, I also started re-watching the original series again, and I have to say a few things about it before I say anything else:

1) The first season finale is an amazing piece of television. It doesn't solve the mystery of Laura Palmer's death, but it manages to take the plot threads of over twenty characters and tie them all together. It doesn't pay off all the plots, but it moves every single one forward if it doesn't conclude them, and it still offers cliffhangers leading into season 2.

2) It was slightly disorienting to see Madchen Amick as Betty's mom on Riverdale the other night after I just saw her as Shelly Johnson last weekend. I know I've seen her in other things since "Twin Peaks" ended, but it was just a weird jump to think that Shelly's old enough to be someone's mom now, and I wonder if she's going to be on the new "Twin Peaks" at all when she seems to be a regular on "Riverdale". Maybe she'll do both.

3) I'm up to Maddy's death in my re-watch. Decades later, it's still one of the most horrifying things I've ever seen on television, both because of the supernatural part but also because of the sheer brutality.

The book starts with a slightly interesting concept: it's a collection of documents assembled by a mysterious archivist, detailing the secret history of the town of Twin Peaks, which are being analyzed by an FBI agent who is not Agent Dale Cooper. At the beginning of the book, the archivist's identity is unknown, but it is revealed by the end. In between, the documents start as far back as the Lewis and Clark expedition before moving to the present day. Along the way, historical characters from Richard Nixon to L. Rob Hubbard drift in and out of the pages, but more exciting for fans of the show is that ancestors of the characters we know and love, and eventually some of the characters themselves, also pop up. As a reader, I expected to hear about some of them, like the history of the Log Lady's marriage and widowhood or the growth of the Horne business empire, but there were other, more surprising pieces, like the tale of Pete and Catherine's courtship and marriage, or an exploration of Josie Packard's sordid past.

The book also does a bit to set the stage for the new series by casually filling in the details of where a few of the characters have been since the last time we saw them. In some cases, this is a welcome surprise (the final time we saw Pete Martel, Andrew Packard, and Audrey Horne in the series, they were inside the bank when it exploded, for example, so it's nice to know who survived and who didn't), but in some cases it turns out to be a dark indicator that the character we know and love will not be the same people when we see them again.

This was at times a dense read, and it's definitely not for people who haven't watched the show. If you're a fan, though, this is fantastic, and probably essential reading.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

I Went to a Women's March

I didn't plan to go to a march yesterday, and as such was completely unprepared. I didn't have a fun shirt, or time to make a sign. It was raining, so if I'd made a sign, I would have also had to laminate it, and I didn't have time to do that either, since I didn't have a sign to begin with. I didn't have a hat or set of cat ears, and ended up grabbing my Pride hat instead because I'm bald and have to have a hat to be outside for more than an hour. I wore the wrong shoes, since I was planning to wear a different outfit, then realized that the shirt I wanted to wear is in the laundry, and then had to get out the door to make it to the march on time and picked a pair of shoes that sort of went but really didn't.

Spending too much time thinking about the shoes I'm going to march in is probably one of the many reasons why I don't organize marches.

I support all the reasons people were marching, and I support all the people marching. I am horrified that our country elected a self-admitted sexual assaulter, liar, racist, and Islamophobe under the most openly homophobic party platform in US history, but it never occurred to me that I should go to a march on Saturday. I knew they were happening, knew we had one locally, and knew people who were going, but it just never occurred to me that I should go, too, until a funny thing happened: I spent an hour looking at Twitter and Facebook while procrastinating going for a walk. I saw people holding hands, people linking arms, people raising their voices, and people refusing to quietly let this blanket of ideological darkness and barely disguised fascism roll over us, and I thought, "That's where I should be. With those people."

So I went.

It rained most of the time, and it was crowded, but an odd thing happened: no one bumped me. No one shoved. None of the things that I hate about crowds made me feel like I was overwhelmed by a crowd of 2500+ people in a tiny area of downtown Knoxville. Everyone was excited, and yet also somehow very Southern: people were polite, the march waited at corners for crosswalk signals to change, we thanked the police as we passed them, and people picked up after themselves.

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

Knoxville Women's March

We sang, and we chanted, and we marched.

And now we have some elections in 2018 to get to work on.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Books 2 and 3: "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" and "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer"

I'm talking about books 2 and 3 for this year as a pair, because they kind of are. The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper and The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer are both tie-in books for the early 1990s television series Twin Peaks, which is coming back to Showtime this year. As part of the preparation for the return, I decided to reread the secret diary and to read the autobiography for the first time. There are similarities between the two books, but also a number of differences.

Both books attempt to give more background material on main characters from the show. In an ideal world, this would enhance the experience of watching the show, but it really only works for the secret diary. In the show, Laura Palmer is the honor student, Meals on Wheels delivery driver, special education tutor Homecoming queen, and after her murder Agent Cooper discovers that Laura hid a number of very dark secrets. Her secret diary expands on that, detailing her descent into drug dealing and prostitution and the reasons behind it. The book, which actually appears in the show, gives voice to a character who doesn't really have one for the simple reason that the first time Laura shows up in the pilot, she's already dead. While she eventually speaks a little through tape recordings and video tapes, this book is the only time fans get to hear her speak for herself.

The autobiography, on the other hand, adds almost nothing to the show. It's the story of Agent Cooper's life as told through tape recordings he made from the age of nine onward, but it doesn't tell the story of anything that fans and viewers would want to know. Wondering how Cooper became a devotee of mysticism? This book won't really tell you, because Cooper didn't make any tapes during that time. Wondering about his career in the FBI before he went to the town of Twin Peaks to investigate Laura's murder? Sorry, those recordings are classified. On the other hand, if you're wondering what puberty was like for a young Dale Cooper, well, there are pages of it. I can't imagine that any fans of the show who bought this were all that glad that they did so.

So, I read two books. One of them expands and illuminates the fictional world it is based in, while the other is a shameless grab for fan cash. That probably explains why the secret diary has been put back in print, while the autobiography, which I paid a dollar for at a library book sale, is now selling for fifty bucks on Amazon.

I'm assuming people who are willing to pay that are people who haven't read it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Book #1: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History"

I ended 2016 by rereading Donna Tartt's The Secret History, a book with which I have a long and complicated history of my own. It continues to be one of my three favorite books in the world, and continues to be a book that I recommend and give out to others. This past year, I gave it to one person in the Facebook book exchange, and I hope they liked it.

(And yes, I know the book exchange was a terrible pyramid scheme, but I sent out one book and got back two, so as far as I'm concerned the book exchange worked, because I got a free book.)

I generally only reread this book when I have a "hey, I haven't read that in a while" feeling, the way that I sometimes decide that it's been a while since I watched a particular movie, but right before Christmas my friend Jackie decided that we should reread it together. She has not yet finished her re-read, but she also started later than I did, as she was locating her copy. I'm not going to talk too much about the book, since I've already written the long entry about it linked above, but I have a few thoughts.

The first thing I noticed was that I find it much harder to get into this book when it isn't winter. The book itself, for the most part, covers an academic year at the fictitious Hampden College, so a good chunk of it is in winter and a lot of important plot developments take place then, but even though a lot of the plot is also in the other three seasons it's fixed in my head as a wintertime book, possibly since that's also when I first read it. By about a third of the way through I had slipped comfortably back into the story, but in the beginning I was kind of not really in this mood.

Even when I did finally get into it, I still felt a little detached from the plot, fully aware of what was coming up next and mentally bookmarking where I was in the story. Because of that, I noticed a small continuity error that I hadn't noticed before: Francis, one of the main characters, lives in an apartment that's owned by the college. Richard, the narrator, spends a few paragraphs describing the building being owned by the college, being sought-after upperclass student housing, having 70's fixtures and finishes, and mentioning the kind of things that Francis has furnished the apartment with. A few pages after that, though, on page 167, Henry, while sitting in Francis' apartment with Francis and Richard, mentions an interaction with his landlady, and Francis claims the same interaction. Francis doesn't have a house and landlady, though, because he lives in campus housing. I've never caught the error before in any of my other readings, but it comes right at a pretty central moment in the plot, so I assume I've always been too caught up in the story at that point to nitpick something like that out.

The other thing I thought while reading this is that Tartt does a really good job at something that I would call offhand authenticity, or maybe local Hampden College color. Most of the random characters mentioned in the book as asides and world-building extras feel like the kind of random people and random stories that I ran into in college. Judy, Richard's neighbor, casually tells a story involving "Flipper" Leach, so-called because she flipped her car "four or five times" (Judy, a notorious cokehead, is probably exaggerating), and I'm reminded of Left Field, a girl who moved onto our floor in the spring of freshman year and was called "Left Field" at her old school because she got hit in the mouth with a softball and it knocked out a bunch of her teeth. Midway through spring of that year I watched a drunken Left Field and Michelle, my friend Alena's roommate who once almost crushed Alena by bunking their beds herself instead of having maintenance do it and then being surprised when they came crashing down in the middle of the night, stopped only by the dresser, sing "I will Survive" without looking at the screen during a karaoke night. Tartt peppers the book with those kind of random stories and asides about the people that Richard interacts with at Hampden, and it makes the college seem real because people who have been to college and lived on campus know people like that. Granted, it's probably because all of these small and small stories are based on people that Tartt met in college, but it still makes reading this sound like a real college.

By the end of this, I was glad I reread it again, as I always am. If you haven't read it, maybe you should.

Onward, to Book #2 for 2017!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Best Books I Read in 2016

This year I ended up reading 76 books, which I feel is a decently respectable total. It's not nearly as high as 2015, when I read 99 books, but is pretty much on track for what I consider a "regular" reading year: 2011's tally was also 76, 2012's was 74, 2013's was 79, and 2014's was 87, so for now it seems that 2015 was a weird outlier and I will probably read 70 or so books this year.

We'll find out as the year progresses whether or not that's true, because for 2017 I'm going to do something new with my reading tally: I'm going to write a blog about every book that I read, as I finish them. No monthly tallies and no yearly tallies. Instead, I'm going to read and immediately write, counting as I go, and see if this is another 70+ year.

Before I finish the first book of the new year, though, even though it was mostly read in the old year, here are the best books I read this year:

LaFeyette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell

What I said in February: Sarah Vowell takes us on a trip back to a time when the US begged for France's help, when Freedom Fries did not exist, and when the patriots of the Revolutionary War welcomed the aid of a French general who was below the current legal drinking age. Following Lafeyette's journey through the US both during the war and later, when he came back to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the victory and spent a year being celebrated by everyone in the US, Vowell gives an amusing picture of the way the war is remembered today contrasted with the way it actually was. This was an entertaining, informative read.

This was the best book I read all month, because Vowell is adept at combining the past with current events in a way that lets the reader see exactly how one flowed into the other without the sense that you are reading a textbook. She also has a very dry sense of humor, and I appreciate being educated about the Revolutionary War through the lens of her getting the reenactors at Colonial Williamsburg to break character or a description of how hard it is to find a monument that now stands in the corner of someone's front yard. Her books present American history in a way that entertains Americans.

Why I list it here: Like I said then, Vowell makes American history entertaining for Americans. I talk to a lot of people who are murky on how we got to where we are as a country, so I think any exposure to US history is a good thing, even if it's only bits and pieces mixed in with trivia. Also, I just liked reading this.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

What I said in May: Was creepy and disturbing, and a very good read.

Merry is eight years old, and her family is in trouble. Her father was laid off after two decades working a factory job, and is slowly becoming devoutly, obsessively religious as her skeptic mother tries to support the family of four on a bank teller's salary. Meanwhile, Merry's sister, Marjorie, starts to exhibit strange behavior: hearing voices, telling stories, acting out, and then spiraling into bizarre physical behavior. When medical treatment can't help her, Marjorie's father and his priest reach a disturbing conclusion: Marjorie is possessed, and must be exorcised. As bad as that sounds, there's a possible opportunity for the family to pull themselves out of their disastrous financial situation while still helping Marjorie. Fifteen years later, Rachel, a bestselling author, is interviewing Merry. Rachel wants to write a book about "The Possessed", the six episode reality show that Merry's family starred in. She wants to explore what happened to Marjorie, what happened to the family, and how Merry ended up as the only survivor.

I really liked that this book was unclear about a lot of things, even whether or not the ending really happened the way Merry remembers it. Tremblay uses his unreliable narrator, Merry, in the best possible way, leaving the reader with an unsettling story of a family in some sort of crisis, but maybe not the kind that it seems like they're in.

Why I list it here: Months later, some of the images and scenes from this book still linger with me. It would be really easy to just discount this as a horror novel, but it was so much more than just a genre novel. As a person who consumes a good bit of reality television on a weekly basis, this book also gives a little bit of a nudge to think a little more deeply about the real people behind those shows, and the things that may drive them to be on them.

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold

What I said in June: Columbine is so iconic to Americans that we don't even call it "the Columbine high school shooting" or something like that. It has its own shorthand where we say the name of the town and the school shooting is the first thing people think of. It's the first school shooting that I remember getting major, around the clock media coverage. It's been exhaustively picked apart and analyzed in books, magazines, documentaries, and internet conspiracy theories, but in "A Mother's Reckoning" Sue Klebold reminds us that there's a side we haven't ever really heard: the families of the shooters. Who was Dylan Klebold? How did he grow up? Were there warning signs his parents missed, or did they see them and interpret them incorrectly? What's it like to receive a call at work that tells you your son murdered his classmates? How do you mourn him and mourn his victims at the same time? What happens to the rest of your life?

I found this compulsively readable. Sue Klebold comes across as honest and genuine, and shares her grief, anger, confusion, and what's she's learned as she struggles to carry on. She also points out that Columbine isn't just a story of murder and rage, but also a story about two boys who committed suicide. Could recognizing Dylan's suicidal depression have prevented what happened? Klebold doesn't make excuses, but she does point out as best she can the places where she could have done better.

I think it was very brave of her to come forward and finally tell her story this honestly and openly, because she lives a life that the rest of us can barely imagine: she's the mother of a mass murderer who has been savaged in the press and the courts of public opinion as a horrible parent who allowed this to happen, and she says over and over through the book that she would think the same thing about a mother if she saw this story on the news. There are some things she can't talk about, because of the many lawsuits that have been leveled against her family by those of the victims, but she also shares things that I never knew, like that she spent over a month after the shootings writing apology letters to each family, or that she is now a cancer survivor, or that she works for organizations promoting mental health and suicide awareness.

I don't know if I can say I enjoyed this book, but I did find it inspiring and sympathetic.

Why I list it here: Everything I said in June still stands. This book was raw and real and powerful, and tells a story we think we already know in a way that we've never heard before. Sue Klebold could have lived the rest of her life as a hermit, shunned and silent, but she chose to speak. She doesn't ask for pity, only for understanding, and wants to help others. Her story deserves to be heard.

Hide by Matthew Griffin

What I said in July: A touching, sad love story. Wendell and Frank have lived together outside of town for decades, cut off from their families and not having any friends. They don't leave the house together, keep separate mailing addresses, and never reveal to anyone in their tiny southern town that the two of them are lovers. That all changes when Frank suffers a stroke in the garden, and his recovery and deterioration forces them to confront all of the things they gave up to be together in a time when doing so was illegal.

I don't think this was annoyingly sad in the way I was complaining about above, though, because the sadness here is more from the oppression of society. The characters in the book were able to build a life despite that, but they could have been so much more happy if the world wasn't such a terrible place to people who are different.

Why I list it here: I cried. Actual tears. This book broke my heart. It was sad and real and touching and I cried while I was reading it.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What I said in August: Arthur Leander is a famous actor orbited by a collection of friends, family, and strangers. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress, is onstage with Arthur the night he dies of a heart attack during "King Lear", and it's also the night that the rapidly lethal Georgia Flu breaks out in Toronto. Within days, civilization as we know it collapses, and fifteen years later Kirsten wanders the ruins of the country with the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors. They move from town to town until they meet the Prophet, a man who may destroy them. In a world of survivors, what else is important besides continuing to survive? What's worth fighting for? And how is Arthur still guiding Kirsten, long after his death and the death of modern civilization entirely?

This was definitely worth reading and worth thinking about. Weeks later, I can still see some of the scenes in my mind.

Why I list it here: This book has received a lot of praise, and I've seen it on a lot of "best of" lists. It deserves to be there, because it's a good book.

Beyond the Grass Ocean by Ron Horsley

What I said in September: It's a children's book, but engaging and moving enough for adults as well.

Nary, a young girl in the fishing village of Rains Perish, lives alongside the great Grass Ocean, a wide sea of grass so deep that ships sail on it and unknown creatures live in its dark depths. When Nary was younger, her mother got very sick, and then went away, forever away, and now Nary wants to know where forever away is, and why the people who go there never come back. When no one can answer her question, she and her friends set off across the Grass Ocean, searching for the Twined Cities and the twins, Somnol and Mortol, who run the world.

In some ways, this is a typical coming of age novel, but it's also filled with magical, lingering imagery. It made me think a lot about grief, loss, and coping, but also it was just an interesting read. The illustrations are well done, too.

I'm glad I read this. It's the only book out of the four I read this month that I'm going to keep.

Why I list it here: It was beautiful and magical and deserves a wider audience. And yes, it's a little expensive, but I'm told that's because of the cost of self-publishing it.

That seems to be it for the year. This isn't to say that everything else I read this year was terrible or anything (except in January; most of what I read in January was garbage), but these are the books that stick out at the end of the year as things I'm glad I read.