The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

Book: The Night Country

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.

Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.

But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.

Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.

This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.

Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.

The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Woman Who Walked into Doors

Author: Roddy Doyle

Type of book: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: This was a case of a title grabbing me when I was at Border’s Books and I bought it on a whim. I almost didn’t buy it because Mary Gordon had a blurb on the back and I responded very negatively to the book I read by her recently, but I’m glad I read it. Very glad.

Availability: Penguin Books is the publisher and you can get a copy here:

Comments:: I fell in love with this book. Absolutely in love. I will, bank account issues be damned, soon order all of Roddy Doyle’s work. There are moments like this in my life, when I read an author and it feels like the literary equivalent of falling into deep, romantic love, wherein you know in advance that even if the object of your affection may fail you in some regard in the future, the sum total of their wonderfulness and compatibility with you will overshadow such moments.

Paula Spencer is an alcoholic mother of four. She cleans homes and white-knuckles her way through her evenings, controlling the times in which she drinks but still drinking far too much. She is a widow, but before her worthless husband died in a robbery attempt gone bad, she threw him out of the family home, a violent catharsis that in the hands of a less honest writer would have been the prelude to saccharine moments in which Paula’s life resolves itself. Her relationship with her sisters would have improved, she would have been able to help her addict son, she would have gotten sober herself and done something more than clean houses.

But Doyle understands that life might have a moment wherein a paralyzed person is suddenly capable of action, but that a moment of clarity does not a changed life make. Doyle shows the arc of Paula’s life as she gradually loses more and more innocence, slowly becomes more and more broken. This novel, better than any novel I have read in recent memory, tells the story of how men defined the world of women, from their actions to their words, and how hard it is to overcome such intrusive beginnings.

This is a book wherein lines and sometimes entire sections resonated deeply with me. Paula’s life was one spent in a world where men acted inappropriately, where men did not protect girls and actively harmed them in some cases, where people blamed women for getting beat up, where even fathers who never physically harmed their children cannot be trusted emotionally. This book was mostly amazing because Doyle shows how a character can hold a multitude of feelings, opinions that can seem contradictory, yet ring very true nonetheless. Doyle’s ability to show the multitudes within Paula shows him as a keen observer of human nature and a fine writer, able to accurately convey complex emotions with the beauty of an accomplished story teller yet with complete honesty.

Already Dead by Charlie Huston

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Already Dead

Author: Charlie Huston

Why Did I Read This Book: I had put this book on my Amazon Wishlist at some point, probably because it is about vampires, which are always relevant to my interests, and my very good friend Arafat sent it to me. I wanted to read it because the Washington Post had this to say in its review: “(t)his book’s core audience is among the young, the cool, the hip, and the unshockable.” And this folks, is why I review books myself and seldom pay attention to anything any established reviewer says anymore because as a middle-aged, uncool, really unhip woman I can tell you that this book ain’t all that shocking, in a pearl-clutching sort of way. Unless you have spent your life reading Jane Austen with a little Nicholas Sparks thrown in for modern relevance, this book is simply a well-told, nicely updated vampire/detective riff.

Availability: Published by Del Ray in 2005, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This is a book that should have annoyed me but it didn’t because Huston incorporates infuriating writing habits, cliched characters and plot devices in a such a way that they seem fresh and interesting. Moreover, he blends and recreates genre in a way that others have tried and mostly failed to pull off.

For example, I loathe hard boiled detective novels. I find the old school Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane novels to be emotionally flat, unengaging and tiresome but Huston takes this genre and makes it work in a manner I could not have expected before reading this book. Joe Pitt, a vampire private detective, is the main character in this novel and he embodies the sort of emotionally flat, badass, private detective who has a soft spot in his heart for the sweet but damaged Everygirl but gets sucked into a web by a gorgeous, icy, double-crossing dame. Except we understand why Joe is remote and somewhat tortured – he’s a vampire and as demonstrated in the book, one break-in to his refrigerator can cause his death. The sweet but damaged Everygirl has AIDS, and his vampirism makes a relationship hard, all the harder because he can give her eternal life if he wants but has no idea, in the way these sorts of emotionally stunted men can be, of going about it. And the icy dame is icy, to be sure, but also has a Chinatown-style problem that telegraphs to the reader that this is going to be bad news and will not end well, but forces us to want Joe to help her anyway.

I also loathe novels that refuse to use proper quotation punctuation, mainly because it has been my miserable experience that when authors do this, it is the only “innovation” in the novel because they are trying to show their indie cred by eschewing rules instead of relying on good writing. Not gonna lie, this book irritated me in sections because in passages filled with large chunks of dialogue, using em-dashes solely to indicate speech got tiresome and I lost the thread of back and forth. But it was not as intrusive as I initially feared. I would have infinitely preferred traditional dialogue markers not because I am a norm helplessly clinging to the old ways, but because it’s easier to read.

So in a sense, this book had a lot stacked against it from the beginning. But I read it quickly, enjoying it more than the parts of its sum should have allowed.

This is what I think I was looking for when I picked up the Ellen Datlow-edited modern vampire story collection that I panned. This is a modern take on the vampire tale, and zombies are handled in a way that makes sense to me (I am not a big zombie fan either – zombies themselves are seldom interesting to me, though certainly that is not always the case). In the novel, a virus causes vampirism, a need to drink blood to feed the “vyrus” that both holds the victims in thrall to their need for blood, but keeps them stronger and healthier when they do drink. The “Vampyres” in this novel have set up their own society in New York, each clan having inviolable perimeters and Joe refuses to join any clan, remaining a free agent who bumps around in the world of upper class Vampyres, radical rogues and absolute criminals.

When he is hired by a clan called the Coalition to find a missing girl who is attracted to gothic and Vampyre culture, Joe is forced to deal with “shamblers,” people who become zombies due to a bacterial infection that is transmitted a number of ways, including sexually. He also finds himself in a world of intrigue, where he is, of course, double crossed on a dime, and has to make uneasy alliances with humans and Vampyres if he wants to find the girl, deliver her to real safety and get out alive.

I think one of the things that won me over is that Huston gets goth culture right, or at least what I recognize as goth culture from my own experiences. Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box was not a bad novel, but his characterization of goth and death metal culture were way off (yo, they are two totally different things and really don’t cross over as much as one might think – the culture that gave us Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus is far different from the culture that lead us to Death and Cannibal Corpse). Writers mischaracterize these subcultures more often than they hit the nail on the head.

Amanda, the goth-kiddie runaway Joe Pitt is tasked with finding has the gothic emotional-nihilism-as-a-mask-for-vulnerability-down. The street kids Pitt deals with are more gutter punk, and have the wardrobes and musical references (Skinny Puppy for the win) to prove it. Having once spent years living in gutter punk or drag rat enclaves, I immediately recognized some of the kids in this book. It was a very good thing indeed to see subcultures represented so accurately.

While I have seen this book described as edgy or like a Tarantino film, I didn’t see that myself. While this is definitely not a typical pulp horror story or a sparkling take on vampires, the edginess in this novel does not come from hip pop culture references or hard core violence. I realize my take here may be rendered somewhat questionable because I am steeped in transgressive literature in a way that casual horror readers may not be, but the real edginess comes into play because Huston manages to weave a Spillane-type detective into a new version of the vampire (and zombie) mythos, creating a wholly new and well-conceived merging of genre. Perhaps the true edginess is that Huston made me like a protagonist I knew I wanted to hate, uses dialogue punctuation in a way that would ordinarily make me snert, yet gets so much right in this intricately plotted book that I loved it in spite of the ways I suspected it should annoy me. His characterization, plot management and eye to renewing the old in horror left me with much to commend and with so many writers attempting to recreate genre and failing, perhaps any sense of edginess in this book comes simply from doing it right. I will definitely read more of Huston’s work in the future. His novel Six Bad Things sounds particularly good. It is always fun to come across a novelist I know I am going to like and realizing he or she has a body of work already waiting for me.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

Type of Book: Fiction, thriller, mystery

Why Did I Read This Book: I read this book because I am a narcissist. You see, while I am not THE girl with the dragon tattoo, I am A girl with a dragon tattoo. The title sucked me in. Then I flipped through the pages and saw that a character had my own name. I have not read a book with an Anita in it since the book Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Those reasons were reason enough for the likes of me.

Availability: Published by Vintage Crime, is is widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: It’s been a while since I have been this enthralled by a best-seller. This is a seriously good book on many levels and I think that you should read it. I feel this way for a variety of reasons.

Larsson’s ability to write a multi-layered mystery with so many characters is in itself amazing. Generally, books with more than one sub-plot can become tiresome, with too much competing for the reader’s attention. Larsson’s tale has several sub-plots neatly woven together so tightly and interdependent on one another that the book is near seamless.

I will not attempt to summarize the plots more than this: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by wealthy man to try to solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s disappearance. He meets Lisabeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, because she had been hired by a security company to investigate Blomkvist. When he reads her dossier on him, her abilities as an investigator and a hacker impress him and he engages her to work with him to find the missing heiress. Together they uncover far more than just a missing girl, but rather many missing and dead girls, whose disappearances all lead to a shocking and dreadful conclusion.

The carefully laid plot is worth the price of admission, so to speak, but really, the reason this book is so captivating is because of the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth, and her intriguing, sad, maddening life.

I read some reviews of this book after I finished it and was puzzled by some of the words people used to describe Lisabeth Salander. Words like spunky. Fiesty. She is not fiesty. She is not spunky. She is not plucky. Those words describe a character in a Reese Witherspoon movie. There were those who think she is a deliberate outsider, choosing to live as she does because she’s some sort of personal agent provocateur. She is not a charming loser, a female Cool Hand Luke. Then there was a discussion online as to whether or not she had Asperger’s Syndrome, which does not even seem reasonable to me, but several felt that she did have the condition. It beggars belief that people found her personality spanning so many characterizations, from a plucky heroine who lives by her wits to a funky anarchist whose tattoos and hacking are a rage against the machine to a computer savant whose interpersonal relationships are limited because she has a psychological or behavioral condition.

How could so many people leave this book with such different conclusions about Lisabeth, though wrong most of them are in my eyes? Because in Lisabeth, Stieg Larsson managed to create a character wholly unique. So unique in fact that she is hard to pin down and even my attempt may be a shoddy representation of her.

Pearl by Mary Gordon

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Pearl

Author: Mary Gordon

Type of Work: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I have no idea where I initially heard about this book. Likely a radio program back when I worked in cubicle hell and listened to public radio on a constant stream. Like many inveterate bibliophiles, I will hear about a book that I think sounds interesting and write it down on a master list of books I wish to read. Sometimes I write down where I heard about it, sometimes I forget. I forgot on this one, but I know that if I wrote it on the list, I was impressed enough that even if I have forgotten the recommendation source, I will still want to read it. And such was the case with Pearl. I saw it on my list and bought it when I had the chance.

Availability: Published by Anchor Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Okay, aspiring writers who may read this, please know this novel stands in violent contradiction to all the writing standards students have beaten into their heads. This novel is rife with telling and not showing, which is not problematic to me, per se. We spend a lot of time in the heads of the characters in Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires and the passivity of the experience actually made me feel very close to the protagonist. Sometimes, with friends, you can loll about, talking and feel as if you have done something. But this is not the case with Pearl. The telling is alienating. Pearl also has an often condescending omniscient narrator, forcing the reader to experience the book in the manner Gordon sees fit, wedging the reader into a stiff “we” formation that spoils much of the narrative. Pearl uses nothing approaching word conservation, overstating, restating, then overstating points yet again with the end result being that the reader’s mind begins to wander.

Many of some of the most acclaimed writers break every writing rule and god bless them because rules are just to get people started, a means of learning. So write ye merry unpublished and know that all those rules used to reject your manuscript will not matter once you reach the right audience, once you hit the right formula. For much can be forgiven if a book is good enough in the right places and Pearl was just good enough when Pearl was its actual focus. But Pearl was not focused on enough, sadly, for me to like this book very much. (A book can also be forgiven if the intelligentsia has decided that writer is a worthy writer no matter what but best not to get too bogged down in details like that.)

Here is Pearl‘s plot synopsis: Pearl, the daughter of an areligious woman, whose Jewish father converted to Catholicism, and a Cambodian freedom fighter who died without her ever knowing him, goes to Ireland to study the Irish language. She is 20, very naive, has spent her life in her mother’s shadow, and becomes involved with people associated with the IRA. A misjudged overreaction on her part and on the part of another woman lead Pearl to think she is responsible for a teenage boy’s death.

Her response is to starve herself for six weeks, deprive herself of water for 4 days, and then chain herself to a post on the American Embassy in Ireland in witness to what she calls “the will to harm.” She wants for her death to be the witness to the boy’s death. But Pearl miscalculates and does not die as quickly as she thought she would and is eventually overpowered and taken to the hospital. Her mother and her mother’s life long friend Joseph hasten to Ireland to be by Pearl’s side. Joseph was raised with Pearl’s mother Maria. His mother was the family maid and Joseph went on to run Maria’s father’s business. The relationships in this novel are fraught with endless difficulty, as they so often are in novels and in real life, but the relationships are believable and overall, the book works on that level.

The best parts for me were when Pearl was still so weak from hunger because in those scenes, the action and thought were more immediate. There was far less dithering in the narrative. The other characters did not mean as much to me and their presence in the book do not show as clearly how Pearl came to be Pearl as one would hope. Maria, a former 1960s radical, is a strident, difficult woman used to getting her way, but as Gordon shows, she is also a woman you want in your corner when you are sick, scared or downtrodden. Maria is a loud mouth pain in the ass but mostly she means well. Joseph is a resentful, but loving man, a man whose destiny in life has been thwarted because of his role as Maria’s financial caretaker, ensuring she and Pearl have enough money in life, rather than pursuing the work that would have made him happy. He has Maria’s number, though she does not have his, and he is overly sensitive and at times, a bit crazed.

Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Shroud of the Thwacker

Author: Chris Elliott

Type of Work: Fiction, Parody

Why Did I Read This Book: Back when the Cassie Edwards Black Ferret plagiarism mess hit (yeah, read that hot mess when you’ve got some time on your hands because it is hilarious as all get out), I found myself reading sites about plagiarism because I was working a miserable cube job and wasted every possible minute I could of The Man’s time. I was shocked and appalled to see Cabin Boy listed as a plagiarist and made a mental note to buy the book and find out what was what.

After reading the book, I thought, “Aha! Morons don’t understand them some parody, represent!” Then I went back to reread the site referencing Elliott’s supposed act of plagiarism and I’ll be damned if I truly understand what happened. Referenced a robot that didn’t exist, a robot that was a hoax and violated copyright? What? You read it and tell me. All I can safely say is that I consider this less plagiarism and really more a mild publicity stunt amongst tricksters, but then again, I refuse to admit that the man who stole my heart as Larry in Groundhog Day would steal anything else.

Availability: Published by Hyperion in 2005, you can get a copy here:

Comments: It’s gonna be hard to give two craps about this book and review if the following do not apply to you:

–You have a mild crush on a balding man who used to write jokes for David Letterman.
–You read and had a violent reaction to Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper — Case Closed, in which she pins the Whitechapel murders on a famous painter, using less hard proof than I use when I look at my nine cats, the hairball befouling the living room carpet and decide Wooster did it on the basis of his twitchy whiskers (actually, this is a mildly unfair assessment – if the wad of wet fur is white, it was undoubtedly Wooster).
–You read and found interminable Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.
–You read and were largely ambivalent about The Da Vinci Code.
–You find puerile humor as hi-larious as I do.
–You embrace the ridiculous more than anyone else you know.

This book is a murder mystery in which an intrepid police chief, his spunky ex-girlfriend and mayor Teddy Roosevelt try to solve a series of prostitute murders in New York, wherein the time-tripping Chris Elliott plays no small role. Really, this is the only way to recount the intricate, insane plot. It is laugh-out-loud funny, witty, and surreal, and like the best parody, shows zero love for the sources it takes to task. In the book, Elliott calls out Patricia Cornwell’s grandiose and bumbling attempts to call case closed on a murder that has stumped experts, uses most of Carr’s set up in The Alienist to frame this book, and exposes a massive, historical cabal, but unlike the sinister Opus Dei of The DaVinci Code, we’ve got the Mummers and a very hungry dinner date willing to decipher for his supper.

Oh, what a silly book this is. Delightful. Full of gross and insane jokes. So of course I think I may be the only person on the planet who loves it. Seriously, who could not love the following passage:

“What can we get you to drink?” inquired Teddy.

“Maybe something light. Caleb, dear, what was that delightful drink we used to order at Hurley’s?” She was looking directly at the police chief, but he wasn’t looking back. “Oh yes, I remember. I will have a powered opium and liquid ether frappe, with a shot of pure laudanum.”

“Waiter!” cried the mayor, “One God’s Own Enema!”

If you don’t find the above quite amusing, this is not the book for you,as the entire book is more or less the above quote. It has no redeeming value other than comedic entertainment. Period. End stop. So if you are pretty serious about your reading materials, read something else. Something by Tolstoy. Or maybe Agatha Christie. Perhaps Audrey Niffenegger. Yeah. Her. That woman who wrote about the time traveler’s wife and no one cared about her plot holes, did they? DID THEY? Just please don’t read my guy Chris and bitch because it made no sense to you and because he covers the inevitable plot issues caused by intense lunacy with even more lunacy.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Author:
Mark Haddon

Type of work:
Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book:
I worked briefly at a used bookstore (waves to all my awesome coworkers at the Half-Price Books in Round Rock, if any of them ever find this review site) and a woman told me she had read it for her book club and wanted a copy for her daughter because she liked it so much. Her daughter worked with special needs children and despite the number of times I had seen copies of the book in new stores, I had no idea the book revolved around a “special needs” kid. On the basis of that woman’s like of the book and tantalizing premise of an autistic teenager writing a book, I decided to give it a try.

Availability:
Published in 2003 by Vintage Books, this book is still widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I do my best not to be an armchair psychiatrist because invariably such endeavors show my utter ignorance in the realm of psychiatry and the workings of the human brain, but I wonder what my extreme love of the spare style used to write this book says about me. The trope of the book is that Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old autistic savant, discovered a neighbor’s dead dog, stabbed to death with a pitchfork, and decided to write a book about his attempts to solve the dog’s murder. As he writes his book, Christopher uncovers a shocking family secret and is forced to crawl outside the extreme limits his autism place upon him. Of course, I won’t spoil the ending but the plot, while at times a little obvious, is overshadowed by the experience of spending time in Christopher’s head, a time that is nerve-wracking, saddening, frustrating and amazing.