Reader’s Journal

Strange Things Are Afoot in Area X

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)I have never read anything quite like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy.

A psychologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist all walk into a bar. Okay, not a bar, but a place called Area X, beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, something bad happened. Okay, scrap the linguist, because she never even actually makes an appearance. So.

Let’s start over: A psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist–all women, by the way–walk into Area X, a place beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, a bad thing (or bad things) happened. Area X is completely uninhabited by humans (um, kinda), occupied only by flora and fauna. What signs of human life remain are being slowly reclaimed by nature (or something resembling nature), with the exceptions of a lighthouse and a 60-foot cement circular platform that the the expedition stumbles across on their fourth day. I should also add that at dusk and on through the night, there’s a mysterious moaning that seems to come from….everywhere.

At the north edge of the platform, there are stairs leading down into darkness. The psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor call this place “the tunnel.” The biologist, who also happens to be the first-person narrator of this account, calls it “the tower”:

At first, I only saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building.

Their expedition, sponsored by the Southern Reach (also known as Control), is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The first three were such failures (more bad things: “We knew that the members of the second expedition to Area X had committed suicide by gunshot and members of the third had shot each other.”) that for a time the expeditions were abandoned altogether. But Control has a need to understand what is happening in Area X, as the border is slowly encroaching on civilization. All of the expeditions continue to be failures of a sort, with members dying, drifting off, or returning home without warning only to die of disease not long after.

Or so we’re being told. For the biologist is almost completely unreliable, which we begin to understand right from the beginning:

The reasons I had volunteered were very separate from my qualifications for the expedition. I believe I qualified because I specialized in transitional environments, and this particular location transitioned several times, meaning it was home to a complexity of ecosystems.

Notice how she makes the distinction between why is she is qualified to go and why she actually goes, which we only learn slowly, through bits and pieces. She is almost coy:

I understood why no one lived in Area X now, that it was pristine because of that reason, but I kept un-remembering it. I had decided instead to make beleive that it was simply a protected wildlife refuge, and we were hikers who happened to be scientists.

Not forgetting, but “un-remembering.” As it turns out, what she is trying to “un-remember” has everything to do with why she has actually embarked upon the expedition. But there are more sinister reasons for her unreliability. For one thing, she realizes that she was probably hypnotized or otherwise mentally compromised during her training for the expedition. For another, when she finally enters the tunnel/tower, something happens to her there that affects her perception (or really, her experience) of reality.

Because of course they go into the tunnel/tower. How could they not? And of course they find something:

At about shoulder height, perhaps five feet high, clinging to the inner wall of the tower, I saw what I first took to be dimly sparkling green vines progressing down into the darkness. I had the sudden absurd memory of the floral wallpaper treatment that had lined the bathroom of my house when I had shared it with my husband. Then, as I stared, the “vines” resolved further, and I saw that they were words, in cursive, the letters raised about six inches off the wall.

In as calm a voice I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…”
Then the darkness took it.
“Words? Words?” the anthropologist said.
Yes, words.
“What are they made of?” the surveyor asked. Did they need to be made of anything?

And let me interrupt this sort of plot synopsis to say that when I saw the words (the writing on the wall, that is), I was seriously worried that later on in the book we’d get pages of italicized gobbledygook to try and decipher. Lame. Luckily, Vandermeer is too good of a writer, and too in control of his story, to let that happen. And so there we are, in the tunnel, mysterious words made out of some organic material, and the four of them will surface again, but of course not all of them will survive.

And I am saying “of course” a lot because many elements of this novel are conventional, maybe even cliché. But you know how they say that having a strict routine can actually give you more freedom to do the things you want to do? That’s sort of how Vandermeer works some of these traditional science-fiction/thriller conventions or tropes in Annihilation, by using them quite skillfully to leave space in our brains for everything else that’s going to happen, which feels like a lot and nothing at the same time.

In fact, while I was reading Annihilation, I started thinking about that Procol Harum song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Although the band has been pretty straightforward in sharing the song’s origins, people have continued to debate about what the lyrics mean, or whether they mean anything at all. Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics to that 1967 hit, said, “I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. I was trying to conjure a mood…With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene.”

Mood is everything in Annihilation, although it is not without a very one-foot-in-front-of-the-other plot. Vandermeer gives us a lot of material to think about, seems to sprinkle a lot of clues as the biologist reveals more to us about who she is (or thinks she is), why she is in Area X and not with her husband, and what she uncovers for her own part on the expedition. The thing is, all of this could mean something (and given that there are two more books, I’m sure some or much of it does), or it could not mean anything at all, so unreliable is our narrator (or is she?):

It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they ought to have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details. I have tried to compensate by revealing more personal information than I would otherwise, in part because of its relevance to the nature of Area X.

Most certainly, atmosphere is everything in this novel, and Area X itself becomes a character, a formidable one. But after finishing the book, I still wonder what we’re dealing with here: human versus nature? Mind versus reality? Sanity versus madness? Big Brother versus the average nobody? I realize all I probably have to do is read the next two books and a couple of interviews with the author and all my questions will be answered. The thing is, Annihilation in some ways is perfect all by itself. I want to know what happens, but had this been a stand-alone novel, I would not feel disappointed. The not-knowing somehow feels natural, necessary.

I read Annihilation very quickly, mostly because I never wanted to put it down; that said, it’s scary. It’s a cross between the best of Stephen King and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, with a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House thrown in. You know you shouldn’t go into the room, but you must go into the room. But not only can Vandermeer tell a gripping tale—he can also write the most lovely sentences:

The black sky, free of clouds, framed by the tall narrow lines formed by pine trees, reflected the full immensity of the heavens. No borders, no artificial light to obscure the thousands of glinting pinpricks. I could see everything. As a child, I had stared up at the night sky and searched for shooting stars like everyone else. As an adult, sitting on the roof of my cottage near the bay, and later, haunting the empty lot, I looked not for shooting stars but for fixed ones, and I would try to imagine what kind of life lived in those celestial tidal pools so far from us.

I can’t decide if I want to go on with the trilogy, for once because I am afraid of having the whole thing spoiled. Have any of you read all three books? Should I keep on? Am I reading too much into it all? Perhaps it’s just like the biologist says:

A religious or spiritual person, someone who believed in angels or demons, might see it differently, Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people. I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.
I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Reader’s Journal: Into Thin Air

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterI’m not exactly a risk-taker. In fact, I’m what might be described as “indoorsy.” The most daunting thing I face daily is trying not to trip on the stairs while carrying food and drink up to my office. Given this, you might be surprised at my interest in a book like Into Thin Air.

Well, truth be told, I really wasn’t all that interested. I mainly bought it for two reasons: it was on sale, and I wanted my mother to stop nagging me about reading it already. (Don’t feel sorry for her and think that now she has nothing to nag me about. She has plenty of other things, including calling her, making one of the eleventy-million recipes she sends me, reading Wolf Hall, and wearing just a tad more mascara because it wouldn’t kill me…but I digress.) Into Thin Air is Mom’s go-to book when she can’t seem to find anything else she wants to read. The fact that a book about a terrible, real-life tragedy during a mountaineering expedition is a “go-to” book in my mother’s mind is another post entirely.

If you’re one of my hundreds of Twitter followers—I can say that now, because as I write this I am officially up to 204 followers and yes I am willingly counting you in the mix, Nissan-Dialer, whoever (whatever) you are—then you know all about the tragic events in my own life these last few weeks. But maybe you don’t so I’ll fill you in: I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, making some pretty nice (for me) progress and happy to be out of a months-long slump at last, when I hit page 439. Page 439 is the end of Section 4 in that book. So I flipped past the “Section 5” page and a pretty print of some flower drawing and found myself mid-sentence on page 471. My copy was a rather nice hard-bound edition, by the way. For several minutes I just flipped the pages back and forth, as though that simple motion might somehow cause the missing pages to appear and apologize for taking a break. The pages clearly had not been removed from the book–it was a printing error. (But what about Into Thin Air, right? Can’t I just tell this story when—nay, IF—I review The Signature of All Things? No. But I promise if I review that book I won’t tell this story again, okay? Happy?)

And so, as I am obviously some kind of Twitter power-user which is why I have so many people interested in what I have to say, I decided to tweet Viking Books and give them what for. And anyway long story short they were really nice and sent me a new hard-cover copy just like the old one except with all the pages and I have since finished that book BUT.

Obviously I had to have something to read while I waited for said book to arrive. Now I don’t know about you but I can’t start a novel while I am reading a novel, unless I am intentionally abandoning the first novel for the second. Besides that, I haven’t been having the best luck with fiction lately, but we can talk about that another time. I scrolled through my Kindle app to see what looked good, and there it was, my mother’s go-to, Into Thin Air, and I thought, why not?

Into Thin Air was published in 1997, and it recounts Jon Krakauer’s experience of following a guided expedition to the top of Mount Everest. Krakauer joined the expedition as a journalist, planning to write a piece about guided expeditions for Outside magazine. Krakauer visited Everest from April through May 1996, and the following September he did eventually go on to publish a 17,000-word story about the tragic events that occurred there. After receiving some criticism about the piece, and wanting to explore more deeply the events of that expedition–and his part in those events–he decided to write the book that would become Into Thin Air.

The most critical decision Krakauer made took place before he ever even left Seattle for Everest. Outside magazine initially invited him to travel to Everest in 1995 and park at the base camp to interview the climbers about their experiences. But Krakauer had a past with mountaineering. He saw what might be his only opportunity to summit the greatest mountain of them all, something he had dreamed of since childhood. He convinced the magazine to give him a year to train so that he could join an expedition and go all the way to the top.

When he arrived in Nepal in April 1996, Krakauer joined an expedition led by New Zealander Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer who owned a company called Adventure Consultants. Including Krakauer, that expedition included ten climbers, seven climbing Sherpas, and three guides (including Rob Hall). There were at least thirteen other expeditions (groups and solo climbers) planning to summit Everest from the Nepalese side at the same time as Krakauer’s group, and two other expeditions summiting from the Tibetan side. And here’s where I should tell you the book includes a “Dramatis Personae” list to rival something out of Tolstoy. I cannot possibly cover what happens to all these people, except to say eight of them died in one day as the result of a freak storm (and some very bad decisions made by many players).

And really, it isn’t so much about events as it is about the telling, the recounting, the wondering, and Krakauer, pardon the obvious metaphor, is an excellent guide. Interwoven with the story of the Adventure Consultants expedition is his own past experience with mountaineering and the difficulties of mountaineering in general, some history of Everest expeditions, some history of key players like Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (lead guide of another expedition), the history of the Sherpas, and so on. I found it to Krakauer’s credit that he avoids making any one person the villain, which could have been easy to do.

That said, he does call into question some decisions that he believes contributed to the tragedy. In some cases, the decision he calls into question is the decision to climb at all, especially given that several of the people on guided expeditions that year were not mountaineers, not in the least. Writing about their first attempt to leave base camp for Camp One, Krakauer says:

“As I loaded my backpack for the morrow, I learned that between the demands of their families and and their high-powered careers, few of my fellow clients had the opportunity to go climbing more than once or twice in the previous year. Although everyone appeared to be in superb physical shape, circumstances had forced them to do the bulk of their training on StairMasters and treadmills rather than on actual peaks. This gave me pause. Physical conditioning is a crucial component of mountaineering, but there are many other equally important elements, none of which can be practiced in a gym.”

But then a bit later:

“But the question of who belongs on Everest and who doesn’t is more complicated than it might first appear. The fact that a climber has paid a large sum of money to join a guided expedition does not, by itself, mean that he or she is unfit to be on the mountain.”

Really, this is one of the biggest questions at the heart of the book, whether people should be shelling out big bucks (when Krakauer went to Everest in 1997, Adventure Consultants was charging $75,000 for the pleasure) and putting their own and other people’s (the Sherpas’ for example) lives in great danger. When Krakauer et. al. start to climb in earnest, he realizes that some people don’t even know how to use their equipment; they cannot figure out how to put the crampons on their boots, for example. Little things like that. Things you’d think you might get the really helpful salespeople at REI to show you in the store when you buy the damn things. (Although, granted, they probably won’t show you how to do it with numb hands and a raging altitude headache.)

If anyone maybe comes off as making some questionable decisions, it’s an assistant guide from Scott Fischer’s Mountain Madness team, Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev, who was killed in an avalanche in 1997, wrote his own account of the tragedy in a book called The Climb. To say that he thought Krakauer got things wrong is an understatement, and Krakauer addresses this in a long epilogue in my edition. To be fair, Krakauer is as hard on himself as he is on any of the other key players that day, but while pointing out that he was not a guide and not responsible for any clients, while Boukreev was.

And I think that’s the right word, tragedy. If there is one thing Into Thin Air does not make me want to do, it’s climb a mountain. And in all honesty, I cannot help thinking, after reading this book, that people who want to climb mountains are just a leeeetle bit nuts, and not just because they expose themselves willingly to such things as extreme cold and going to the bathroom outdoors. Some of these people climb alone (well, with Sherpas to fix their ropes and carry their stuff, so “alone”). Some of these people climb without using supplemental oxygen. Keep in mind that Everest is at 29,029 feet above sea level. That is thin air indeed. Rarified. Um, nuts.

Certainly after reading Into Thin Air, I am interested in reading more of Krakauer’s work, but I’m also interested in reading more about why these crazy people climb mountains. I know, I know. Because they are there. Same reason I read books, which is easier, warmer, and so much safer. And while I don’t think this will be a “go-to” for me, I’m happy I picked it up. You win, Mom. This time.

Reader’s Journal: Skippy Dies

Skippy DiesWell, it looks like my entries for Reading Ireland Month will be a paltry two novels…but then again, with a book like Skippy Dies on that (very short) list, I feel less ashamed for only having two.

People, I don’t even know where to begin. In truth, I’m feeling very protective of this book and my feelings about it. I’m not sure why because when it was published in 2010, it received mostly highly favorable reviews (read Patrick Ness’s review here), and it was shortlisted for any number of literary prizes, so it’s not as though I am being called upon defend my love for a book everyone hates. The problem is, I just loved it that much, and I realize I may not even be able to explain why.

A plot summary won’t tell you much about why I loved it (and you can find summaries anywhere: in Ness’s review, or by clicking on the book image to go to Goodreads). I can tell you it’s a campus/boarding school novel (some of you love those as much as I do). I can tell you it’s funny and melancholy at the same time. I can tell you that every bit of Murray’s affection and empathy for these characters is evident on each and every page, and he has a keen ear and understanding for the language and dynamics of young people, without making them seem like caricatures or symbols of some societal problem or another. I can tell you that despite the fact that Murray uses very contemporary references to technology and pop culture, I seriously doubt they will date the book for future readers because the story at the heart of it is timeless. And I suppose one could quibble over its length (it’s about 660 pages, originally released as three volumes sold together), but something about the length immerses the reader and reminds us of how very slow time moves when we’re young, or when we are not as young but feel so very lost.

If you’ve been thinking about reading Skippy Dies, trust your instinct on this one. Just do it. I hope you love it as much as I did.

Reader’s Journal: The Lola Quartet

The Lola QuartetEveryone has been talking about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. That book got so much amazing blog coverage over the last few months, I wondered if it was really that good or if everyone was buying into the hype. (I find myself now worrying about this same thing with The Girl on the Train. Has the hive mind taken over?) not that it mattered—because of the TBR Double Dog Dare, I can only read from my stacks, and I don’t have a copy of Station Eleven. (Er, make that didn’t have a copy…I caved and bought it, but I havent’ read it!) I do, however, have a copy of Mandel’s The Lola Quartet that I bought several years ago and hadn’t read yet, so I decided to find out for myself what kind of author Mandel is.

Gavin Sasaki is a 28-year-old journalist living in New York City. He’s broken up with his girlfriend, the newspaper where he works is going digital and laying people off, the shower in his apartment has an ever-worsening leak, and he’s generally come to feel…well, to feel a sort of nothingness. He takes an assignment in Florida, not far from his hometown of Sanderson, covering exotic and dangerous animals that people have released into the wild that threaten the human population. While he’s there, he meets his sister, Eilo, for lunch. Eilo is a real-estate broker who deals in foreclosures. She shows him a picture of a ten-year-old little girl who looks just like Eilo when she was the same age. She also tells him that the girl has sinced vanished, that the lady left the house and took the girl with her and Eilo does not know where they’ve gone.

And so begins the story of The Lola Quartet, which was the name of the jazz band Gavin belonged to in high school, the band that was playing the very last time he saw his girlfriend, Anna Montgomery, on the night of graduation. After Gavin breaches the trust of his editor at the paper, he loses his job. He drifts aimlessly around New York and then finally decides to accept an offer to stay with Eilo in Florida while he gets back on his feet. In Florida, he becomes obsessed with the idea of finding out what has happened to Anna and the little girl in the photograph, so he decides to track down the other members of the Lola Quartet—one of whom is Anna’s half-sister—to understand what happened.

Although the story primarily feels like Gavin’s, it moves between past and present (1999 and 2009) and characters (the Lola Quartet members Daniel, Jack, and Sasha, and also Anna herself, who was not a member). In the present day, Daniel, the bassist, is a cop. In the past, unbeknownst to Gavin, he was a rival for Anna’s attention and affection. Jack, the pianist, is now a drug addict, the result of a nervous breakdown in college. And Sasha, once a talented drummer and swimmer, who suffers from a serious gambling problem and now works the nightshift at a diner. Gavin visits each of them in turn, and as we hear the stories we begin to piece things together along with Gavin. The missing information is filled in with Anna’s narrative, how she got from graduation night to the hiding place where she is now.

The Lola Quartet isn’t exactly a mystery, but it has a noir feel. All of the characters seem wise and weary beyond their years, which feels appropriate to the tone of the book. All of them remember that graduation night, where the Lola Quartet played its last performance. They were set up in the back of a truck, playing late into the night. All of them remember the small hours of the morning, a singer crooning “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (translated loosely, this means “you are beautiful to me.” You can listen to a popular version of the song by The Andrews Sisters here.) and the lyrics (“You’re really swell, I have to admit you/ Deserve expressions that really fit you/ And so I’ve racked my brain hoping to explain/ All the things that you do to me…”) fit all the longing these characters feel, sometimes for each other, sometimes for music itself, or for cards, or just for some other life. Anna, who is the only person who is not a member of the quartet, and who prefers electronic music (in particular, New Order) to anything else, seems also to be the one character who is most pragmatic, who spends the least time longing and more time doing. It’s an interesting juxtaposition that works quite well.

In some ways, this novel feels infused with music, especially in Jack’s sections, as he’s the only one of the Lola Quartet who decides to pursue music after high school. He goes to college in South Carolina and then meets his roommate, a jazz guitarist who aspires to be greater than Django Reinhardt. At the midpoint of his freshman year, an event occurs that leads him to feel that he’s lost the music, that he doesn’t have what it takes to play piano or maybe even live in the wider world, and begins his decline. The way the story moves amongst characters, from past to present—it feels like a jazz arrangement. I almost want to say, if you enjoy jazz, then the rhythm of The Lola Quartet should please you. You shouldn’t mind the lack of straightforward narrative drive, and instead you’ll enjoy the improvisations, the parts that seem to wander away but then lop full circle to make the narrative tighter than before.

Stylistically, this novel reminded me a lot of The Goldfinch, which I loved. That isn’t to say The Lola Quartet is quite as good, though, and it does have some issues. The only one that really stood out for me is that near the end, a few characters respond to a major event in a way that seems unlikely. I was happy that happened closer to the end because at that point I was ready to declare it a triumph. If I were going to give stars, those reactions would take one away. But overall, I fully enjoyed it. Mandel is a terrific writer, and now I see what all the fuss is about. Now if April 1 would just get here, so I can finally read Station Eleven!

Reader’s Journal: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

The Truth About the Harry Quebert AffairNothing is better than getting lost in a good book. You’re reading along, completely absorbed, as the time passes. It must be hours, you think. You must be at least halfway through! And then you start to worry about the end, because you’re having such a good time with this book. It’s clever! It’s witty! You want to know what happens, but then at the same time you don’t because then it will all be over and you’ll have to pick out a new book and hope it’s at least half as engaging as this one.

And then you glance down at the little progress bar on your e-reader and see that you are actually only 28% through the book, and you feel a slight sense of unease. You could have sworn that you were much further along, because really how can the author keep this conceit (It’s clever! But it’s still a conceit!) going? Maybe you swiped something accidentally and it knocked your progress back. So you check. And the answer is no: you really are only 28% into this book. And the remaining 72% will feel like an eternity. It will feel like one of those runs where you are doing it just to get it done. No joy. No endorphins. No personal best. Just slogging straight through to the end.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair. When I first heard about it this past summer, the plot sounded completely compelling: It’s 2008, and Marcus Goldman is a wunderkind novelist whose first book was a huge commercial success. But Marcus has a big problem: His second book is due, and he hasn’t written a word. He has writer’s block. Desperate for help, Marcus turns to his mentor, Harry Quebert, a writer whose novel, The Origins of Evil, published in 1975, has become an American classic, one of the finest love stories ever told.

Marcus goes to see Harry at his home in New Hampshire. While he’s there he makes a curious discovery about The Origins of Evil after snooping through some of Harry’s things, which is that the book is based on a love affair that Harry—in his early 30s in 1975—had with a 15-year-old girl named Nola Kellergan. Nola is somewhat famous in her own right, because in August of 1975 she disappeared under mysterious circumstances and was never found. Still unable to write, Marcus has returned, dejected, to New York when he hears the news that Harry has been arrested for Nola’s murder. Her body was found in his yard when landscapers were trying to plant some hydrangeas. The original manuscript of The Origins of Evil is also found in a leather satchel next to the body, with the inscription “Goodbye, my darling Nola” on the cover page. Marcus rushes to Harry’s side. Harry declares his innocence–at least when t comes to murder. Marcus decides that he will help Harry by discovering who actually killed Nola. And—here’s the kicker—along the way he’s persuaded by his agent, his publisher, and even Harry himself to write the story—the truth about the Harry Quebert affair.

This novel has a bit of everything most of us bookish types enjoy: it’s a book about books, about writing. It’s clever and at times laugh-out-loud funny. It has a terrific setting (I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist books set in New England). But. The dialog is wooden. The characters are cliché. The metaphors are tired. Even the references (Harry Quebert/Humbert Humbert, Nola/Lola/Lolita) are kind of, well…yawn. And it just goes on. And on. And on. It twists. It twists again. And then—wait for it—another twist. Some of these twists you see coming from a thousand miles away, while others are just barely believable.

The author, Joel Dicker, is Swiss, and the book (originally written in French) was translated into English for an American audience (after becoming a blockbuster in Europe), so about halfway through the book I started to convince myself that Dicker was actually messing with the whole idea of the American novel—that there was some sort of inside joke and I wasn’t getting it. After I finished the book, I decided to look at some reviews to see if they would tell me what I was missing. Apparently, the answer is NOTHING. From The New Yorker:

“The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.” The fact that there’s a novel within a novel about the author of another novel isn’t handled with any sort of postmodern panache, and neither are the literary allusions to Roth and Mailer—a food-obsessed Jewish mother, boxing matches—which might actually just be clichéd writing. It lacks the psychological precision of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the sentence-level skill of Donna Tartt’s novels (both of which come to mind as similarly ambitious, plot-thick works). It’s hard to tell whether the novel is as wooden in the original French, but I’m told that it is.”

Exactly. I wish I could tell you this book raises interesting questions about authenticity, debut author hype, the relationship between teacher and student, the publishing world’s willingness to sell out anyone for a buck, or the nature of “truth” in true crime investigations and narratives (think “Serial”), but I can’t. It could have raised those questions, but ultimately, it doesn’t. Too bad.

Reader’s Journal: We Disappear

We DisappearFor years I’ve been saying that I need to keep better track of how I find books. I thought about this again when I picked up Scott Heim’s We Disappear and almost immediately wished I could offer a personal thank you to whoever recommended it.

Scott is a freelance writer living in New York City. Well, “living” might be too broad a term; he’s a writer, yes, but he’s also a meth addict, hiding out in his apartment most days and devoting his time to his high. Scott’s mother Donna lives in Haven, Kansas, just outside Hutchinson. She calls Scott to tell him that a seventeen-year-old boy named Henry Barradale was found murdered. She sends him newspaper clippings about the story and calls him regularly with updates. She bids him to come home to they can investigate together what happened to Henry, perhaps find his murderer.

Donna is suffering from terminal lung cancer. She’s a former prison tower guard at a maximum-security prison and True Detective (the magazine, not the television show) fanatic. Scott realizes her phone calls and sudden interest in Henry’s murder are really about something else, so he relents and agrees to visit. As it turns out, Henry’s murder is not the real mystery she wants to solve. We learn that the missing—the disappeared—have been an obsession of Donna’s since Scott and his sister Alice were children, when a Haven boy named Evan Carnaby vanished:

“The boy had disappeared during the time our mother was drinking, those weeks and months so long before her real disease, and soon she began staying up, quiet leaden midnights and beyond, to search for information on Evan and more missing souls. I remember hunkering downstairs to find her in the darkened kitchen, absorbed in her new undertaking. The staggering breathing, the rustle of newspapers, the sudden glint of scissors…In the mornings, Alice and I would wake to find all the faces watching us, Evan and his vanished companions, their photographs taped and pasted and pinned to our kitchen walls.”

Scott returns to find his mother similarly obsessed with Henry Barradale. The dashboard of Donna’s truck is covered in pictures of the missing, and when he arrives at the house she proudly shows him the kitchen walls she’s transformed with the same sort of clippings that she’d “taped and pasted and pinned” all those years ago. She also has an idea, a project for the two of them: a book about the missing in Kansas. She’s placed classified ads in newspapers in cities like Hutchinson and Emporia and Wichita, looking for families of the missing who want to talk, to tell their stories:

“Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped my mother’s determination. I wasn’t certain she understood the gravity, the possible danger: could she actually exploit these despairing family members or friends with all her promises, her false guarantees? Would she still discuss our fictitious research and resulting work? Her detective work, Dolores had called it.”

When Scott arrives home and his mother’s best friend Dolores picks him up at the bus station (he’s had to take the bus because he’s carrying meth to see him through his visit), he realizes immediately that his other’s disease has progressed much more than he realized. They haven’t got much time, and so he agrees to go along with most of his mother’s schemes and wishes, even when he feels it’s against better judgment (although whose better judgment is questionable, since everyone in the story is afflicted in some way that affects their faculties).

As it does in Gillian Flynn’s work, Kansas itself also becomes a sort of character in the book: the small towns, the farms, the flat, cold landscape that Scott realizes he sought to escape but carries with him:

“Along the narrow avenues were houses with shattered windows, with gardens of car parts and sandburs and tumbleweeds. I watched her scribble street names on her notepads, names that might once have been functional but now were simply silly: Cowherder Street, Barley Boulevard, God’s Green Way.”

A way of life has disappeared, one that’s reflected in the antiques in Donna’s house:

“The bronze chandelier with its drops of glass…the old firkin sugar bucket, clumped with dried roses…the Dazey butter churn. Most of the antiques had remained in our family for years. Others I hadn’t seen before, her recent discoveries from junkyards and auctions. I stepped around the room, straightening the picture frames, examining the rows of dolls in the glass china cabinet.”

We Disappear is one of those books where it’s difficult to know what might be a spoiler, so as far as plot, I’ll leave it at that even though there’s so much more. The story is told in the first person, and Scott is a compelling narrator, and it’s difficult to not to empathize with him. Everyone in this book is disappearing or disappeared in some sense, whether through illness or memory or reality, but Scott in particular has always felt invisible in some ways—a gay teenager in small-town Kansas, escaped to the big city where instead of finding himself he found the drug that would cause him to disappear even further. He’s an addict, and he makes no bones about the fact, but neither does he glamorize it or use it to shame, blame, or confuse other people. Instead, Scott does everything in the book despite his addiction, and I think that’s one of the things that keeps the book from dragging the reader around in the hopelessness of it all.

Here’s something I can’t quite figure out: as dark as this book is, I enjoyed it thoroughly. We Disappear features a meth addict, a cancer victim, a lonely alcoholic, and countless missing or murdered men, women, and children. Yet something redeeming exists, and I think ultimately that thing is love. Scott loves his mother, even with all her eccentricities, even with all his frustration at her and at himself. He knows that she loves him. It isn’t that they aren’t flawed people, but more that Heim doesn’t really let the flaws and dysfunction get in the way of the love, and that’s as unusual in a novel as in life. Hope beats steadily beneath the narrative, which makes it easy for the reader to keep going, to keep hoping.

*images and links from Goodreads and Wikipedia

Reader’s Journal: We Were Liars

We Were Liars CoverBack in 2011 I picked up E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks and loved it. In fact, it made my list of top books for 2011, so when I saw the news about We Were Liars, I immediately put it on hold when it became available at the library. And then I waited. And I waited. And then I forgot about it and the hold expired so I put it back on the list again and I waited. And waited. Finally, last month it came available so I checked it out and then it sat untouched on my desk. And it sat. And it sat. And then, with only a few days to spare (it’s due back today), I decided I would make it my last book of 2014.

The bad news is, this book is difficult to discuss without giving away some important plot elements. The good news is, it was absolutely worth the wait, and I’m so happy I was able to end the reading year on a high note.

Cadence Sinclair Eastman (Cady) is part of a venerable, blue-blooded New England family, the Sinclairs of Boston. For all of her life, during summers she has visited her grandparents on their private island, Beechwood, near Martha’s Vineyard. Her grandfather built houses for each of his three daughters, and summer after summer, regardless of marital turmoil or other life events, the sisters have visited the island with the children in tow. Cady spent every summer of her life with her cousins Johnny and Mirren, and then when she was eight years old, her Aunt Carrie (Johnny’s mother) brings her partner Ed, who is Indian, and Ed’s nephew Gat, to the island with her, and Cady’s life is forever changed, as the four of them form an enduring bond. They call themselves The Liars.

The book opens during what Cady calls Summer Seventeen (the summer she and the Liars are 17 years old). Cady has not been to the island since Summer Fifteen, when she suffered a head injury after a diving accident. She did not return to the island during Summer Sixteen, and she has mysteriously heard nothing from the other Liars over the two years she has not seen them. She has pockets of time she cannot remember. She endures debilitating migraine headaches. She hopes that the Liars can help her recover her memory of events and help her regain a sense of normalcy.

That’s it. That’s all I can tell you. Just know that you are in the hands of a skilled storyteller. Pay no attention to the fact that this book is marketed as Young Adult if you tend to avoid that sort of thing, because this is a book about family, and about pain and loss and friendship and love. Lockhart also does such a wonderful job at showing us the insular, privileged world of the Sinclair family, of making the island such a vivid place that we can smell the salt air, see the waves, and imagine the soft summer breezes. I’m happy to join the chorus of other bloggers and readers who highly recommend this book, and I can’t wait to read what E. Lockhart writes next.

*image and link from powells.com; links are unaffiliated and I receive no compensation