Monday, May 30, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to Those People Who Get Weirdly Huffy About Inevitable Awkward Moments

Dear People Who Get Weirdly Huffy About Inevitable Awkward Moments,

I know, I know. How awkward! I was pulling the bathroom door open at the very moment you were pushing it to walk out. How humorous, our weird little jig to get around each other. Awkward, yes, but a pretty unavoidable fact of life (see also, stepping into someone's path on the sidewalk, inadvertently falling in step with someone you don't know, reaching for the same napkin in the dispenser, being on the elevator when it's going really slowly, etc.).

These things happen. One cannot avoid them, unless one wants to move to, say, Wyoming, which I think has the least dense population of any state in America, where I'm pretty sure one could avoid not only that awkward moment when we bump into each other at the bathroom door but also people entirely.

That's a good solution! Go live off the grid. Then you won't have to worry about anyone inadvertently trying to get into the bathroom at the precise moment you are trying to exit.

But until then? Handle these little awkward moments with more grace. I'm not part of some grand conspiracy, waiting around the corner until I see the door moving and then lunging forward to grab it at the precise moment that you're trying to exit. I'm not a Bathroom Door Clogging Flash Mob of One. These weird little moments are going to happen until you either die or go live on the moon in glorious isolation. Get used to it.

Sincerely,
Me

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sour love.

Joyce Carol Oates, grande dame of American writing, returns with Sourland, a collection of short stories. Sourland may be Oates' darkest, dreariest, most unrelentingly violent and bitter work yet.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, widows and widowhood figure very heavily in Sourland. Oates lost her beloved husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008. She's since remarried, but loss and bereavement are like a razor-edged ribbon that run through her stories - coupled with an astonishing amount of rage at the departed. The bewildered, coddled widow, suddenly thrust into an independent life for which she's ill-prepared, with disastrous results, appears repeatedly throughout the book.

Sourland opens with "Pumpkin-Head." Sheltered new widow Hadley waits for a visit from an awkward younger man who has his own violent agenda. "The Story of the Stabbing" retells a woman's witnessing of a stabbing from different viewpoints, including her angry daughter's. In "Babysitter," a wealthy young wife travels to an assignation in the city that both is and isn't exactly what she was hoping it would be. "Bonobo Momma," an account of a young girl who spends a disastrous afternoon with her beautiful, remote former-model mother, strikes a false note with the mother's almost caricature-like voice.

In "Amputee," a young double-amputee embarks on a strange love affair and is disgusted to find herself turned into a fetish object by her lover. In "Honor Code," a young girl goes to visit her cousin, in a half-way house after being released from prison on manslaughter charges for beating the man the girl's mother was having an affair with."Probate," the book's most unsettling and violent story, follows a confused and tremulous widow attempting to navigate a confusing and dangerous bureaucracy (reminiscient of an earlier Oates story, in which a desperate shopper is murdered by the staff of an exclusive boutique). Oates nails the disinterested-yet-obstructive attitude of minor bureaucrats and security guards, but the violent interlude in the center feels unnecessary and strangely dreamlike.

"Donor Organs" is the hardest story to read, a nine-page run-on sentence with odd spacing between the words. In "Death Certificate," a widow (young and vital, this time) comes to pick up a death certificate and meets an old flame. In "Uranus," a deranged young man claiming to be an intergalatic emissary unsettles the wealthy wife of a professor at her own party. In "Lost Daddy," a father takes out his rage on his young son.

"Sourland," the final and longest story, includes another widow who travels to remote Sourland Falls, Minnesota, to meet a man long thought dead in his remote mountain cabin.

Certain themes wind throughout Sourland, most obviously that of widows, mostly unprepared to navigate their life without the protective bulwark of their husbands. Infidelity, rape, violence, and the guilty race and privilege consciousness of Oates' mostly upper-class, white wives and widows also permeates the stories.

There is nothing hopeful in Sourland. Bodies are bruised, violated, and assaulted. Marriages end in death or adultery, and family is alternately dangerous, constricting, or dissolving altogether.

That Oates is a powerhouse of a writer goes without saying, although the unrelentingly darkness of Sourland feels almost like an assault, with each story like punch after punch.

Certainly no reflection of the writing, but the hardcover imprint of Sourland (published by Ecco, a division of Harper Collins) is extraordinarily poorly edited and rife with typos.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Turn on the bright lights

The concept in Kevin Brockmeier's The Illumination is a simple but brilliant one: one day, for no reason, everyone's wounds become illuminated.

Imagine what you would look like. My tendonitis-ridden left knee would be a white ball. My spine would light up. So would my left eye and the rotator cuff tear on the top of my left shoulder. You couldn't hide the secret sources of your pain any longer.

But how quickly would the miraculous become the mundane? I think that is really what Brockmeier is exploring in his new novel: our capacity for wonder, and our equally great capacity for absorbing it.

The Illumination links together the stories of a handful of individuals, held together by the lost (and found, and lost again) journal of a dead woman. Young wife Patricia Williford's husband, Jason, leaves her a note every morning with a different thing that he loves about her, and Patricia has copied the notes into a series of journals. On the day of the illumination, Patricia is killed and Jacob severely wounded in a car accident, and Patricia's journal ends up in the hands of Carol Ann, in the hospital with an injured hand.

Brockmeier traces the journal's journey from Carol Ann back to Jason, who forms an unlikely friendship in the aftermath of Patricia's death with a self-destructive but oddly tender teenager, Melissa. The journal is then swiped by Jason's neighbor, Chuck, a gentle, silent ten-year-old whose oddness is a magnet for being mistreated by others. The journal then passes through the hands of a door-to-door preacher to an author in chronic pain to a homeless man, where it rests at the end of the novel.

But although the journal is the thread that links the people of The Illumination together, and snippets of Jason's I love yous fill the pages, the journal isn't really the central theme of the novel. Rather, sources of pain, manifesting as light, are.

What does the illumination really change? Nothing, as Brockmeier puts it: "You would think that taking the pain of every human being and making it so starkly visible...would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, or at least ripples of pity, and for a while maybe it had, but now there were children who had come of age knowing nothing else...and still they grew into their destructiveness, and still they learned whose hurt to assuage and whose to disregard, and still there were soldiers enough for all the armies of the world."

The Illumination is a lovely little book. Brockmeier presents what should be a profound, life-altering phenomenon, then shows, with incisive, scalpel-like writing, precisely all the ways human nature conspires to inure us to the miraculous. How infinitely adaptable we are, suggests Brockmeier. How easily we adjust.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Open Letter Mondays (Tuesday edition)

An Open Letter to My Love of Apocalypse-Themed Movies

Dear My Love of Apocalypse-Themed Movies,

I really don't understand you. You're like an evolutionary dead end. I understand that I have such convoluted, intricate movie preferences that most people would probably prefer an unanesthetized tooth extraction to trying to find a movie to watch with me, but you're such an outlier. I don't know where you came from.

I genuinely like documentaries. I prefer movies with subtitles in which nothing much is happening, ever, and things are going very slowly. Preferably with only one or two people onscreen at a time (more than that, and I get confused). No horror movies. Preferably nothing scary of any type, unless it falls into an incredibly narrow subsection of certain obscure science fiction genres. No comedies, unless it's incredibly dry comedy where the likelihood of anyone laughing out loud is very, very infitesimal. No romances. Ever. Preferably avoiding any romance-related subplot, unless it's one where everyone is most definitely going to end up sad and bereft. No chase scenes. Unless they're very, very low-speed chase scenes in which no one is going to end up getting hurt. NO LOUD NOISES EVER. Extra points for scenes in which no one says anything at all but simply sit and exchange significant looks with each other.

And yet! And yet, you, my love for apocalypse-themed movies, you continue to plague me, ruining any hope of Netflix ever actually recommending anything I'd like, making most of my brain shriek in protest, and causing a deep, soul-scorching sense of shame.

I hate you.

Sincerely,
Me

A Note on Technical Difficulties

Because something has apparently possessed my computer (and because of the upcoming holiday) posting will likely be rather light in the next few days. But! I have two new reviews forthcoming.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Laughing at the end of the world

So, unless you've been living somewhere blessedly free of the infernal screech of CNN (and if so, do you have a spare bedroom? I bake.) you've heard that the world is supposed to end tomorrow, according to a group of what you would call wingnuts and I what would call normal people otherwise going a little sideways.

About two weeks ago I was driving home and saw one of their shrink-wrapped tour buses. WORLD ENDING! And I thought not, that's weird, but the sandwich board budget must have been increased.
Then I felt kind of relieved. Then I felt kind of scared. Because, if their version of the apocalypse was just sort of a giant, universe-sized snuffing out of life as we know it, I think I would be okay with that. But this is really old school, Revelation-of-Saint-John style stuff, with the burning and the flames and the floods (and how do those happen simultaneously? Wouldn't we all just get steamed to death like human-sized broccoli florets?) and the doomy doom doom.

The New York Times ran this weirdly touching, very sad article about a family whose parents believe that tomorrow is doomsday. The kids aren't quite so convinced. I mean, what do you do if your bellwether for whether or not everything is, in an essential way, okay with the world tells you that it's all going up in smoke tomorrow? Can you imagine the conversation on Sunday morning?

Sadly, in reviewing my one-more-day-left-to-live scenario, it was rather exactly the same as my every-other-Saturday-morning scenario. Dye my hair. Eat ice cream for breakfast. Contemplate the yawning pit that stretches out underneath everything, like every other day.

Pattern recognition

I took a graduate class that focused on memoirs, and it seemed like most of them came from the I'll-see-and-raise-you school of memoir: I'll see your alcoholic father, and raise you a childhood of poverty in West Virginia! Heather Laurie Sellers You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know certainly has the elements - a childhood spent vacillating between her claustrophobic life with a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic, cross-dressing, violent father with a propensity for allowing drifters and drunks to live with him.

But while Sellers' childhood, and particularly her mother's mental disorder, play a large part in this memoir, You Don't Look is more about Sellers' journey towards being diagnosed with prosopagnosia, or face blindness.

Face blindness is one of the bizarre little side streets of mental disorders. Unlike disorders like schizophrenia, that tend to wreck the entire operating system, face blindness has rather narrowly defined effects. The human brain possesses a remarkable chunk of software devoted solely to recognizing, decoding, and sorting faces. We simply don't look at faces the way we would a chair, or a flower, or a shoe, because faces transmit so much more information.

Imagine, then, the effect if this chunk of your brain simply didn't process faces any differently than it did anything else. Just thinking about it is baffling, since face recognition is one of those fundamental, automatic things that we don't really think about, but we couldn't live our lives the same way if we couldn't do it - like suddenly waking up lacking thumbs or the ability to speak.

Sellers opens her book with an account of an ill-advised road trip with her fiance and his two sons to visit her mother. Sellers, who presents herself as a combination of intelligent and daffy, is constantly surprised by people. Her inability to ever seem to remember having met someone is viewed as alternately hostile, weird, or quirky.

After Sellers and her new family have two disastrous encounters with her estranged father and mother (estranged from Sellers, and from each other) Sellers begins to suspect that her mother is schizophrenic - and that something is also very wrong with her. Sellers visits a number of disbelieving therapists and doctors, but she participates in a face blindness evaluation study and is diagnosed. Her attempts to explain her disorder to others are interspersed with episodes from her childhood that include the mundane and the shocking, although Sellers reports even the most bizarre elements of her life with the same matter-of-factness, including her unorthodox marriage. Sellers' strenuous insistance on the goodness of her husband, Dave, is somewhat undermined by both his drinking (Sellers stresses that he's a recovering alcoholic, although an episode when the two of them drive in his car, emptied beer cans clinking underfoot, would seem to point less towards the 'recovering' and more towards the 'alcoholic' part of that description) and his refusal, as a staunch libertarian, to do anything approaching parenting of his two teenage sons (whose mother, also a schizophrenic, periodically pops up in ways that mirror Sellers' mother's erratic behavior).

Sellers' description of living with face blindness is extremely interesting - imagine that freezing feeling when you realize that the person bearing down on you is someone you know, but you don't remember their name, then imagine that happening nearly every moment of your life, and one starts to think that Dante should have added another circle of hell to his inferno.

Sellers becomes convinced that her mother's as-yet-undiagnosed-schizophrenia played some role in her face blindness, as though an offshoot of the mental disorder took root and bloomed into prosopagnosia. She also briefly considers whether her father suffers from the same disorder. Her face blindness does give her an oddly touchingly tender insight into her mother's disorder, although, as Sellers' ill-advised marriage dissolves over the course of the book, one wonders how much good it's done her.

What I found striking about Sellers' writing was the lack of rancor or bitterness over her chaotic childhood and contentious relationship with her barely-functioning parents. The writing in the early chapters of her book is rather scattered, and it isn't until she begins seriously pondering whether she has a mental disorder that the focus of the book sharpens and the pacing picks up. She's diagnosed fairly early in the book, leaving her the task of both trying to explain her disorder and decipher her parents' multiplicity of issues, although their refusal (or perhaps inability) to cooperate leaves the book with little in the way of a resolution of Sellers' difficult relationship with her parents.

Thanks to Sellers' quick, light writing, You Don't Look is a swift read, albeit a rather unsatisfactory one. Like most mental disorders, there's no definitive cure for face blindness, and very little in the way of managing it, other than explaining the disorder and hoping that you're believed, although Sellers' path to finding out her diagnosis is an interesting one.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taking Responsibility (You're Doing It Wrong Edition)

So, the Catholic Church has released the findings of a nearly 2 million dollar study into the sex abuse scandal that broke in 2002.

The study, performed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, blames "social factors" of the 1960s and 1970s on the abuse, citing things like the rising divorce rate, drug use, and promiscuity.

Huh.

Of all the excuses that I have come up with in my life, I don't think I could have fabricated something this bizarre.

Alana, why did you eat that entire cake? Permissive attitudes of the 60s, man. Not my fault.

Did you even try to get your car in between the lines?! Nope. 1960s liberalism, baby! I can park wherever I want!

You do realize that if you don't wash your hair soon, no one is going to be friends with you anymore. Squares! The let-it-all-hang-out ethos of the 60s will be my credo from now on.

Your habit of never checking your messages is really frustrating to people trying to talk to you. They didn't even HAVE cell phones in the 60s. How can you expect me to remember to look at my phone?!

Stop leaving that tiny bit of peanut butter in the jar and putting it back in the cabinet. FASCISTS.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

You Have Broken My Heart For the Last Time (Political Edition)

Luther "Luke" Campbell, formerly of 2LiveCrew, has announced that he will run for mayor of Miami-Dade County.

Although Campbell probably wouldn't be any weirder than the panoply of misfits who have run or become mayor of Miami-Dade, I am disappointed that one of his campaign platforms is to raise revenue by charging strippers a fee for a "license" to dance in Miami-Dade country strip clubs.

THAT IS ANTITHETICAL TO EVERYTHING 2LIVE CREW STANDS FOR, LUKE. YOU CAN'T LICENSE SEXY!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter To Everyone I Know Whom I Have Ever Ignored Whilst Passing By Them On The Street

Dear People I've Ignored Whilst Passing By You On The Street (or other places),

It's not you. It's me. And I'm sorry.

I have a perfect-storm situation of terrible eyesight, bad memory for names and faces, and a tendency to live so much inside my own head that I am usually not paying attention. Seriously, it's like a Michael Bay picture crossed with a horror movie in there. With experimental dance. You have no idea. It's exhausting. Sometimes it's so bad that I have trouble walking without veering off of the sidewalk and into oncoming traffic. External stimuli are so hard for me to sort through that yesterday I couldn't even succesfully buy a cup of tea but had to back out of the store apologetically with my hands around my face like blinders (blinders! Brilliant. Note to self - make pair of human-sized blinders. Also, find coffee shop that has fewer options).

People who know be pretty well have gotten used to having to jump in front of me and wave their hands frantically to get my attention. It's a pretty good test of friendship, actually, when someone is willing to overlook those weird, annoying idiosyncracies (of which I think I have more than most people, anyway).

So, for anyone I overlooked and/or appeared to ignore, I apologize. Next time, just trip me. That works pretty well.

Sincerely (and apologetically),
Me

Friday, May 13, 2011

Target fixation

A timely article about rampage shootings on The Good Men Project website, written by Preston Moore (a lawyer-turned-minister...possibly the ultimate conversion).

I say timely because I just finished reading Dave Cullen's Columbine. After reading Tim Shepard's Project X, I realized that there was a lot I didn't know about Columbine aside from what was filtered through the media, which, given my general propensity for never, ever paying attention, was fairly little.

Cullen's Columbine could probably be summed us thusly: everything you think you know about Columbine is wrong.

There was no 'trench coat mafia,' and Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't part of Columbine High's disaffected group of Goths anyway. Harris and Klebold weren't bullied or persecuted. The much-repeated tale of Cassie Bernall, who allegedly told Harris she believed in God before she was shot, never happened.

Columbine distills the information the Cullen spent ten years digging through - everything from interviews with the victims and their families, the boys' Basement Tapes, Dylan's journals, and the police records. What Cullen recorded ranged from banal to terrifying to very, very sad. Cullen is a solid writer, and very certain that his version is correct. He labels Harris as a textbook psychopath and Klebold as a suicidal depressive, towed along in Harris' wake (incidentally, Flake and Edwin of Shepard's Project X are, in retrospect, even more modeled on Harris and Klebold than I originally though, despite being younger and rather more sympathetic. Flake is the psychopathic Harris, Edwin the depressive Klebold.).

Cullen's attitude towards Harris and Klebold is rather cryptic - he seems almost condescending, particularly in his analysis of Klebold's journals, but also strangely protective, especially towards Klebold. Because Harris' parents refused to meet with Cullen (and, as of yet, have not spoken with anyone), there is more information about Klebold available, which may contribute to Cullen's more three-dimensional portrait of Klebold.

Particularly striking is Cullen's depiction of what happened to the victims, survivors, and their families in the decade after Columbine, from tragic to hopeful: a marriage, the suicide of one survivor's parent, the dissolution of the marriage of another pair of parents.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Trivia Thursdays

Today's trivia question:


Which one is more terrifying, Callista or Cindy?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Fever dreams

One of my superpowers* is being extraordinarily attractive to mosquitoes. Eating outside during the summer is torment - everyone sits there placidly while I spasmodically hit myself and end up covered in recycled blood and crushed insect bits. They really, really like me, and I don't know why.

There are theories about why some people are more enticing to mosquitoes than others, including the possibility that mosquitoes are more attracted to people with certain blood types than others, but no one really knows for sure (although I think the article's point about 'lazy and incapacitated prey' describes me really well).

Why do we care about mosquitoes? Malaria. Why should we care about it? Consider this: malaria has killed more people than any other disease in the history of man, not to mention shaping the fate of continents, population patters, and human physionomy to a simply extraordinary disease. And malaria is wily. It mutates and has managed to overcome everything we've thrown at it, from DEET to quinine.

Which brings me to Sonia Shah's Fever, an excellently composed, quick-moving book about malaria. Shah's book is part biography, part historiography, and part ethnography - but it's also an expose of how badly developed countries have failed at managing malaria, due in no small part to racism and bias.

Shah begins with a biography of sorts of the plasmodium parasite. There are hundreds of species of plasmodium, but humans are mainly afflicted with four (vivax, ovale, falciparum, and malariae). Shah traces the development of the parasite and its unique relationship to the mosquitoes it uses as disease vectors, revealing a complex interdependence between the fragile parasite and its insect and human hosts. In malarial regions, humans developed a number of mutations to combat the disease, including sickle-cell anemia and a number of other blood cell irregularities, which, although often eventually fatal, gave the bearer more of a chance of surviving malaria.

From the opening information-packed chapters (and if any of Shah's very accessible writing requires re-reading, it's these), Shah moves to the history of malaria and humans, particularly how malaria shaped the conquest of large swathes of the world and dictacted human movement. This section of the book is especially interesting, as it reveals the hidden role that malaria played in history, from the decline of the Roman empire to the settlement of the New World. Malaria ravaged European settlers who came to the southern areas of America, and even stretched up into New England after the development of mill power (the result of mosquitoes breeding in new stagnant bodies of water created by milldams), where it decimated populations that had no tolerance for the disease.

But Shah retains her ire for how malaria was treated (and not treated) in developing countries by the West. From the death of thousands of workers on British railways and the Panama canal to half-assed and underfunded attempts to eradicate malaria, Shah shows how many of these efforts have actually made malaria worse. Because of malaria's ability to mutate, use of things like DEET and malaria medications initially drove down the infection rates, but failed to eradicate the disease, and malaria became resistant and roared back with a vengeance.

What I find most gratifying about Shah's book is how she reveals how malaria - ignored in the First World - has so insidiously and completely shaped human history. Even the population patterns in the South are a relic from when malaria roamed the Carolinas and spread up the southern coast of the U.S. While malaria has been more or less rooted out from America and Europe, it still hobbles the economy and human capital of Africa and Asia. While completely destroying malaria may not be a possibility, Shah makes it clear that she considers it the First World's responsibility to fund the fight against the disease. Whether or not you agree with that particular point, Shah's Fever is a sharp, clearly written book about the facets of human's deadliest disease.

* This is part of my Superpower Theory, which postulates that everyone has one or more superpowers, but that these superpowers are not interesting or useful things like X-ray vision or flight or invisibility. My superpowers, aside from the aforementioned attractiveness to anything that bites and/or stings, include always, always getting stuff in my shoes and the ability to get lost even if I am driving somewhere I have driven to a million times before.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

An Open Letter to the Urban Outfitters Catalog That Arrived on Friday

Dear Urban Outfitters Catalog,

First of all, let me just say that I am not sure how you ended up at our house. I am not on your mailing list. I don't think anyone else who lives here is either, and our magazine subscriptions are kind of schizophrenic (Foreign Policy, The Economist, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan. It's like Dr. Wonk and Mr. Bimbo live at our house).

But we all know that magazines are like venereal diseases - they spread and proliferate. You get a mild case of Victoria's Secret, and the next thing you know, you've got full-blown Frederick's of Hollywood and Diesel.
I have a feeling it was the Victoria's Secret catalog that invited you. But no matter - I did pick you up and flick through you through some sort of sense of misguided duty.

You confuse me, Urban Outfitters catalog. I get that it's your summer issue, which explains all the swimsuits and weird, shirt-dress combinations that do not look appropriate for anything other than a beach cover-up, but the catalog seems to feature a cast of twelve-year-olds having some sort of unsupervised bacchanalia in a beach house.

Is that even legal? You can't even rent a car in most states until you're 24, and I highly doubt any self-respecting owner is going to rent to a posse of high-schoolers.

Also, no one really looks like they're having fun - they all look cranky and petulant. No one appears to have brushed their hair in a few weeks, and there are some very questionable choices in footwear.

How do I put this gently? I don't think we're your, well, target demographic, if you know what I mean. If you decide to do a line of 'modest Amish' or 'demure secretary' clothes, feel free to give me a call, but until then, I don't think I'm going to need the 'sideboob crocheted beach cover-up' or 'ill-advised vaguely shirtish-like dress thing.'

Also, call those kids' parents. None of them look like they're eating enough.

Sincerely,
Me

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The x-files/misunderstood

I was in ninth grade when Columbine happened. I don't remember whether I heard about it before I went to school the next day (we didn't have a TV, although I read the newspaper, because that's totally normal for a ninth-grader) and I remember seeing pictures of students standing outside the school, but I knew we were really in the shit when I showed up at school and the principal (handlebar moustache, Wranglers, and hubcab-sized belt buckle) was gleefully wanding everyone with a handheld metal detector.

They'd gotten the brilliant idea to borrow a metal detector from the local police department. A metal detector, which meant we all sort of hung around outside underneath the hellish Texas sun waiting to pass through it one by one, which took a few hours.

After that they abandoned the metal detectors, but made us all wear "ID cards" that consisted of a small square of blue paper with your name on it that you wore around your neck. I'm not sure what the purpose was, unless it was to make identifying corpses that much easier in the unlikely event that we did have some sort of mass-casualty event. Also, no Manson T-shirts.

Post-Columbine, the misfits in my school were regarded with a bit more suspicion, but we were relatively lucky in that a fluke of city planning had left one half-completed high school into which they threw all the ninth-graders. Although we did have some of the freakish on the spectrum of adolescent development (that one guy who was barely four feet tall, plus several linebackers who were already shaving and experiencing fits of steroidal rage), everyone was more or less the same. Which is to say, poised on that particularly excruciating cliff of teenagerhood, when you and everyone you know is miserable, awkward, and uncomfortable.

In the wake of Columbine and the school shootings that followed, there has been a rash of books, movies, and songs, and of course, Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, and the image of Klebold walking through the cafeteria, gun poised casually at his hip, is seared into our collective unconscious.

So it is to Shepard's credit that his slim novel, Project X, published five years after Columbine, provokes an unsettling blend of disgust and sympathy.

Project X's main characters are two misfit middle schoolers, Edwin Hanratty and his best friend, Roddy (nicknamed Flake). They're both smart, restless, and have plentiful reserves of anger and rage. Hanratty is the more sympathetic of the two - he has a deadpan wit that's genuinely hilarious, despite his anxiety and depression, and he's devoted to his younger brother. His parents are bewildered by his behavior, but neither one is really equipped to address it. Wisely, Shepard does not give the reader a family with anything particularly wrong with it, but rather with the normal problems of too little time, too much work, and not enough attention. His parents' earnest but bumbling and misdirected efforts to help are little use, and even his teachers dislike him. Their casual cruelty is even more disheartening than that of his classmates. As the famous saying goes, children can be so cruel, but adults are sometimes worse.

Flake and Hanratty begin planning their revenge, although Flake is more deadly earnest. Shepard does a remarkable job of capturing Hanratty's sad, funny voice. Hanratty and Flake are not Dylan and Eric - they don't listen to metal and eschew TV and video games, all the culprits that were blamed in the finger-pointing aftermath of Columbine. So why do Hanratty and Flake think that murder will make them feel better? It's a question that Shepard doesn't really try to answer - or perhaps the answer is just that they do. Readers trying to find the why are going to be disappointed.

Shepard's writing has momentum and heft - as the book progresses, it feels more and more like something careening out of control. And after all, isn't that the heart of adolescence?


Like You'd Understand, Anyway is Shepard's most recent publication, a collection of short stories. I love short stories, but of late have been dissatisfied with most of the collections I've read. Not that they aren't well-written - they are - but that the subject matter is so familiar (dissolving/broken marriages and/or relationships, for the most part).

Shepard's collection is a welcome break, including (but not limited to!) stories about: two explorers on a mission from Himmler in Nepal to find the yeti and prove some of the Third Reich's more boneheaded ethnographic beliefs; a Russian astronaut who becomes the first woman in space; a miserable scribe toiling alongside soldiers at Hadrian's Wall; an executioner in revolutionary France having serious doubts about the nature of his work; a trio of brothers at Chernobyl's ground zero; an ill-fated expedition to the center of Australia, and many more.

There's a lot to love in Shepard's writing, even if it leaves a vague sense of dissatisfaction. A lot of reviewers have commented on the male-centricity of Shepard's stories, and Like You'd is no exception. The only main female character is the aforementioned Russian astronaut, who bears more than a passing resemblance to NASA's Lisa Nowak. It's the weakest story in the collection.

Not that Shepard's stories are not about relationships - they are - but he seems more interested in examining filial relationships between men and how they go wrong, from the absent father in "Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak," the bereaved family in "My Aeschylus," a suburban family dealing with mental illness in "Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian," the deluded old soldier/father in "Hadrian's Wall," the complicated and difficult relationship between three brothers and their father in "The Zero Meter Diving Team," and...well, you get the idea.

The stories are certainly bleak, but readers who are turned off by bleakness are not likely to read Shepard in the first place. Shepard's depth of research certainly shines through in his attention to detail in such wide-ranging settings, but it doesn't seem affected or grating, which is a trick that many authors cannot pull off. Despite the general chill that this collection seems to carry with it, it's a welcome departure from the more common strains of short stories.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Open Letter Mondays

I'm starting a new tradition here at Commander Banana's: Open Letter Mondays (and to give credit where credit is due, this was inspired by McSweeney's "Open Letters to a Person or Entity Unlikely to Respond," which is great, because who doesn't have some stuff of which they would like to unburden themselves? And I'm much, much better at expressing myself through writing than any other way - in writing, I sound somewhat coherent and put together, whereas trying to say the same thing in person would result in a lot of "I don't knows," hand flapping, and agonized shrieks.)

So, without further ado, the first Open Letter:

Open Letter to the Roasted Nut Vendor at the Farmer's Market:

Dear Sir,

I did not mean to be rude. Neither, I am pretty sure, did my friend. I really did want to peruse your roasted nuts. I particularly like those sugar-crusted almonds that you get in little paper cones at carnivals (or, in the Edenic carnivals of my childhood, you did. Not sure what you get from carnivals these days, but I hope it's curable with penicillin.). So I was kind of hoping you would have those.

But I didn't even get a chance to read the labels, because as soon as we paused by your table, you boomed out "SO, WHO'S THE NUT LOVER?" really loudly.

And we just sort of looked at each other, and I realized there I was no way to answer that gracefully. I couldn't think of a way to extricate myself. Say yes, and pretend I don't notice the double entendre? Say no, and then have to explain why I'm buying nuts if, in fact, I do not love them?

That few seconds was all it took for the moment to descend from the usual, rather awkward exchange you have with someone when you buy something to Completely, Totally Unredeemably Awkward.

I looked at you. I looked at her. I backed away, slowly. We executed a three-point turn and attempted to melt into the crowd (which was hard, because it really wasn't crowded).

The sad thing is, I really did want to buy some nuts from you. Now I can't. It's too weird, and you've ruined it forever.

Sincerely,
Me