Thursday, May 15, 2008

From Moldy Beginnings: Tender at the Bone- Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl

This is the type of book that makes me want to cook, except that I don't know how to cook and, when it comes down to it, I guess I don't actually want to lift a finger, since I remain too lazy to learn.

Okay: Ruth Reichl is the food critic at The New York Times. This memoir focuses mainly on her childhood and early adulthood in New York (with a manic depressive mother who fed her sour cream sandwiches on moldy bread- hence, the title of this post), Montreal, and eventually California. Each chapter functions as a complete short story, as in each one Ruth goes through some sort of rite of passage. But connected to each important coming-of-age experience is an introduction to a particular type of food. Ruth loves eating and cooking food, and food is connected to all of her memories. Recipes are included. This book isn't necessarily anything groundbreaking, but I had an amazing time reading it. I read it in a day, actually. It's easy, warmly funny, and charming as hell.

Ruth Reichl also wrote Garlic and Sapphires: The Life of a Critic in Disguise, which is equally good, and Comfort me with Apples, which I haven't read.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tracking the Urban Nomad: Beautiful Children by Charles Bock

Beautiful Children centres around the disappearance of an enormously irritating and surly 12 year-old boy named Newell who, basically, is just like most 12 year-old boys except that he takes off one hot night in the desert outside of Las Vegas. As his parents try to make sense of Newell's disappearance and their own disintegrating marriage, the events leading up to the vanishing come into focus and reverberate through the lives of seemingly disconnected characters.

In some ways, this is a mystery novel. We’re introduced to a large cast of loosely- connected characters who were roaming around Las Vegas that night and who provide us with several paths to follow- each of which could easily lead to Newell. While I’d hesitate to call these characters suspects, especially since we don’t know until the book’s final chapter just where or with whom Newell was last seen, they're still not what you'd call wholesome. They're not the sorts of people you'd want your 12 year-old son to get involved with. The cast includes Kenny, a guy almost twice Newell's age who happens to be his only friend; Bing Beiderbixxe, a comic book artist who confesses to Columbine-style fantasies; Cheri Blossom, a stripper with a bull's eye tattooed on her crotch; Ponyboy, Cheri's horrible boyfriend who signs her up to perform in an illegal porn flick; and Daphney, a homeless runaway who is massively pregnant and addicted to heroin.

There's no way this book is going to appeal to the group of late middle-aged women I'm scheduled to try to sell it to at work tomorrow, but it's really damn good. If a novel could be X-rated, this one would be for sure. Countless pages are devoted to detailed descriptions of pornography, for example, and there's an unbelievably graphic gang-rape scene. The sections with the most impact, though, aren't the most pervy or violent, but those that focus on the young runaways like Daphney, her boyfriend Lestat, and a nameless girl with a shaved head (a "pavement virgin," as Daphney calls her) who is dabbling with street life. Readers know that Newell, as a very recent runaway (it's assumed that Newell is a runaway and is still alive), is probably being initiated into this world after his disappearance.

Newell is a difficult character. He's very realistic as a spoiled suburban 12 year-old, alternating effortlessy between being quietly sulky and loudly obnoxious. He makes us cringe, and wonder if this kid is going through a phase or is actually just a total moron. The occasional glimpse inside his head, though, helps us come close to liking him or at least understanding him. The novel creeps towards a point where Newell (confused, overwhelmed, and deeply unhappy because of a series of events beyond his control), needs to make a decision he's not yet old enough or smart enough to make. He can leave his his pampered, air-conditioned, suburban life or fling himself into the desert towards a life more ugly and difficult than it needs to be. It's very easy to see Newell becoming a future Lestat or, if he doesn't get any wiser, a Ponyboy.

Despite it's darkness, Beautiful Children actually ends on an a (sort of) optimistic note. We don't know what path Newell is following, and we don't know if he'll have the strength to escape from it, but we do see one street kid turn out kind of okay, though damaged and not particularly well-adjusted.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Sorry I suck: An apology for sucking so bad

Oh, hi. I just reread that last posting and it's really badly written. Sorry! I wrote it on the reference desk, while simultaneously saying things like, "Here's how you log on," "you are grown-ups and probably capable of sharing the Wall Street Journal," and "stop masturbating in the library" to a constantly-disappointing public. Here I am in the above photo, explaining to a 15 year-old that Middle Earth is not, in fact, a real place. He was disappointed, sure, but not as much as I was.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

There's a Monster in the Lake: The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Here's the first sentence of Lauren Groff's debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton:

"The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the 50-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass."

So this is a book about monsters? It is, sort of. But the actual monster fished out of the lake in the novel's first chapter mostly just looms in the background for the rest of the book, giving way instead to monsters of the human variety. The actual monster becomes, by the end of the book, both a symbol of the individuals who populated the town throughout its ugly but compelling history and one of rebirth. It also prepares us for a story that is half-mythic and tinged with magic realism.

When 28 year-old Willie Upton returns to the small town of Templeton where she grew up, she is pregnant by her married archaeology professor and has just tried to run over her archaeology professor's wife with a bush plane. Things are not looking good and Willie has come home to think, to figure out her next move. Willie is sort of famous in Templeton- simultaneously resented and adored because she's last in the line of direct descendents from the town's founder, Marmaduke Temple. She got a lot of unwanted attention from teachers in high school, and classmates thought she was stuck up.

Anyhow, now Willie is a knocked-up mess hiding out in the cozy old house where she grew up with her hippy mother, Vi, who maddeningly half-shares a secret with her daughter. See, Vi had always told Willie that her father could have been one of three men who had been living with her in a commune at the time of Willie's conception. Turns out, Willie's father is actually from Templeton. He's a local, which means that Willie has probably known him her whole life. Vi also tells Willie that her father claims to also be a descendent from Marmaduke Temple, but she leaves it at that. Willie, needing to occupy herself somehow, begins her search for her father by researching her family's (and the town's) history, starting with her closest relatives and working backwards. Note to Lauren Groff: This is an unlikely and awkward way to get your main character researching (we're to believe that by withholding Willie's father's identity, Vi is deliberately setting Willie on a course of self-discovery), but it does the job. Soon Willie's ancestors are stepping forward through letters and stories, and they're authenticated by the occasional illustration and photograph. The high point of the research is surely a packet of handwritten letters, marked "Contents disturbing and painful," written by two long-dead women. The correspondence begins politely, but quickly descends into darkness as their friendship turns to animosity and the corresponding death-toll rises.

Among the most intriguing characters are a slave, an American Indian and his son, a woman who has the ability to burn down buildings with her emotions, and a red-headed and blue-eyed aristocrat who fathered countless illegitimate red-headed and blue-eyed babies.

The book is completely addictive, but it has it's problems: The writing is occasionally too romantic, as is Willie's amused finger-waving at a photograph of her monstrous great-great grandfather. What's more, Templeton could be any one of a zillion towns with gorey histories- is it really necessary that this one have it's own monster, a ghost (yep, there's also a ghost), and eerie, sinister family portraits? It's as though Groff has taken on a bit too much.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Utter Crap: The Clique by Lisi Harrison

I read this for work. It is brainless and offensive. Don't get me wrong, I really like YA fiction and that's one of the reasons why I'm a teen librarian. I'm never dismissive of popular teen series' (I'm the first to admit that I'm huge fan of the Georgia Nicholson books) and I don't think that YA novelists should be required to write books exclusively for the betterment of young people. This book is appalling, though, in the same way that Sophie Kinsella's Shopoholic series is appalling. But it's creepy in a way that the Shopoholic series is not, because the girls in this book are twelve. Twelve!

That said, I really like this line:

"She was ready to pick up the pace. She triple-tapped Brownie and he began to gallop. Massie could feel her newly sprouted A-cups bouncing along with her. She loved the constant reminder that they were there."

I like that line because I enjoy imagining the moment that Lisi Harrison wrote it, reread it, and then actually told herself that it was good.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Complex Pancake: The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

I want you to know that this book is awesome, but ineligible for a Clammy because Flann O'Brien died forty-two years ago. That is all.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Boring Guy Annoys Me By Writing a Surprisingly Satisfying First Novel: A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans

The good people at Shaye Areheart Books (a little-known imprint of The Crown Publishing Group) did right by first-time novelist Justin Evans when they designed this cover:

(This creepy cover illustration is the only reason I picked up the book)

Justin Evans is a Business Development and Strategy Executive in NYC and, because I'm a snob, I tend to think that's enough to make anyone a really crap novelist. I'd pretty much dismissed him as one of those douchy business-types who say things like, "I'd love to write a novel one day, but I just don't have the time right now!" as though writing fiction must be the easiest thing in the world- anyone without a really demanding day job could do it, right? Thing is, Justin Evans actually did it. And he did a good job. And that kind of pisses me off. My friend Sam used to rant about Vincent Lam, claiming that it was supremely unfair that a successful doctor should win the Giller Prize on his first try, when poor Sam was struggling just to keep his (unread) blog witty in between shifts at the bookstore where we worked. I sort of feel the same way about Justin Evans and take petty, mean-spirited comfort in the fact that, although A Good and Happy Child marks the debut of a serious talent, it hasn't really been noticed by anyone.

George is 30 years-old and he has a wife and a newborn son. Trouble is, he can't bring himself to hold his son. His wife is, quite understandably, getting seriously annoyed by this, and insists that George see a psychiatrist. The incredibly creepy and unnerving childhood memories that come back during these psychiatric sessions form the bulk of the novel. Evans has written a literary, psychological thriller about the nature of demons - real or imagined. Think Donna Tartt's The Secret History (Southern gothic without the South) crossed with The Exorcist and then crossed again with The Turn of the Screw.