Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A TBR Vanquished and a decision made

The decision in question? I do like Tom Perrotta. I had found his previous books to be uneven at best. While I had absoultely loved Little Children, Joe College didn't do much of anything for me.

His newest book, The Abstinence Teacher, was terrific. It's smart and funny, and a good critique of the evangelistic movement without being too judgemental or preachy. The central figures in the book are both abstaining from sex, although neither really by choice. Ruth is the Abstinence Teacher in question, and has been divorced (and celibate) for two years. She landed in hot water with the administration after a student baited her about oral sex in class and she was amoral enough to admit that "some people like it." The student was a member of an evangelical church in town and used the comment to cause a huge uproar, resulting in the institution of an abstinence-only sex-ed "curriculum."

Tim is not actually her adversary in all of this, but represents another side of the story. He is, himself, a member of this evangelical church. He's also a former addict who struggles daily with the desire to drink and do drugs again. He misses the wild times, the women, the rock bands he used to play in, the card games, all that stuff. He also misses his ex-wife, who's moved on, and their daughter, who he only gets to see once a week. He married a younger Christian woman who doesn't turn him on the way his ex-wife used to, causing real problems throughout the relationship. A bright spot in his life is coaching his daughter's soccer team. Ruth's daughter plays for the same team, and their lives collide when Ruth catches him leading the girls in prayer after a particularly emotional game.

Unlike the other three Perrotta books I read, this one ends on a hopeful note. There's plenty of sorrow throughout the book: Ruth's palpable loneliness, Tim's feeling of being lost, the pain he causes others, the life that's slipping away from Ruth. There's also some very funny moments. I particularly liked the part where Ruth got sent for a "refresher" in the Wise Choices For Teens program. I definitely recommend this one, especially if you feel the way I do about things like abstinence-only "education" (seriously, remember how well the "Just Say No" campaign worked for drug addiction? see how no one does drugs anymore?) and the way the Christian Right has taken over this country. Get it if you can: it took me several tries at Central before I found it in.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Unluckiest Man in Upstate New York

The last time I went to the library, I was on a nonfiction tear. After the haul of lackluster novels, I thought I'd try some nonfiction. Then I didn't. I got about a quarter of the way into a book on the Black Dahlia murder and never picked it back up, or any of the other books. While my library sends me increasingly angry emails ("Please return the following at once!") I've been reading an old favorite, Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo.

I first read this book in graduate school and have since come to believe that I've located all of the inspirations in Upstate New York for the fictional upstate New York town of Bath, where this book is set. The geographic location of it -- about a half hour north of Albany near the Northway, in proximity to a wealthier town -- would put it where Ballston Spa is located, its wealthy, tourist-destination sister city being Saratoga Springs. Yet, I think the idea of the economically depressed former tourist magnate came from the haunting town of Sharon Springs further west, with its large, palatial, abandoned mineral bath hotels (I also think some of the inspiration for Disney's Tower of Terror came from here, too). Finally, I think the inspiration for the subplot about the proposed amuseument park came from the expansion and rebranding of the Great Escape in Lake George.

Knowing all of these places fairly well makes me feel an intimate connection with the story, but Russo's characters are so terrific that you can't help but feel that anyway. He has a knack for making them feel both ordinary and extraordinary. They're not "colorful" in a manufactured way, but they seem like real people with complexities, eccentricities, pasts, hopes and dreams. This is a holiday story, starting on the day before Thanksgiving and wrapping up around New Year's. It chronicles the life of Sully -- Don Sullivan, mid-50s, long-divorced, in a long-term affair, renting a flat from his eighth-grade English teacher and working under the table for a local construction magnate and tomcat.

Sully is, at heart, a lone wolf, who's drifted through life largely without strings. That's his own position, and the surface evidence seems to support it. He owns nothing but a beat-up pickup truck. He has no profession. He's been having an affair with the same woman for twenty years, but she's not really his. He has a son from his marriage, but he's not close to him. Yet, the more you read, the more you see how connected he is to everyone in town, and even to the poeple in his own life. By the end of the book, he begins to see this too. You also get glimpses into his past that explain his aggressive avoidance of ties.

This is really Sully's story, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other principal in this story. Sully's landlady, Miss Beryl, was Jessica Tandy's last role in the film version and a moving character in the book. She's probably in her late eighties, and few fiction writers seem to want to take on writing from the point of view of an elderly character (this book is written from an omniscient point of view). Russo handles it deftly. Miss Beryl struggles with her own mortality and her increasing physical limitations. She struggles with her feelings about her grown son, and whether they represent more of an accurate assessment or are a harbinger of failing faculties. She struggles with her conflicting desires to remain a part of society and her disgust with that same society after having seen a lifetime of it. Empire Falls gets more attention, but this is far and away my favorite Richard Russo book.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Workin' 9 to 5

Work. It's something we all do, or are forced to endure. Pull up any user-driven site on the web, and you'll find it rife with frustrations (mainly petty) about work. From the notes about people stealing yogurt and staplers on passiveaggressivenotes.com to the often more serious gripes about unethical and even illegal behavior that can be found on the Craigslist job forum, they're everywhere.

I used to frequent the Craigslist JoFo, even when I wasn't looking. I realize that this makes me sound like a total douchebag, but I have a sort of sociological interest in working and people's attitudes towards their jobs and co-workers. Some of my favorite books deal with work. There's Studs Terkel's fascinating and fabulous Working (all the more interesting for being over 30 years old and containing interviews with many people whose occupations no longer exist or have changed beyond all recognition). There's the "memoir of a moran" The Working Stiff's Manifesto by Iain Levinson, which is still entertaining despite his refusal to learn. Add to these the novel by Joshua Ferris, And Then We Came To The End.

This book is set in a failing Chicago advertising agency during the late nineties and the first part of this decade. It's about office politics and intrigues in the face of layoffs and impending insolvency. The author uses an interesting device: he writes in the first person plural. We do this, we think that. The book contains an interview with him, in which he explains that his inspiration from this was derived from the new "corporate we." I can relate to that: I've often responded to emails from potential volunteers and talked about how excited "we" were to hear of their interest in "our" organization, and "we" would love their help, and "we" look forward to meeting them. And I think, what the fuck, do I have a mouse in my pocket? Number One, I'm the only who even knows of this person's interest, and number two, I can't honestly think of one co-worker who also may give a shit about it. But I continue to do it.

The "we" also gets at the peculiar group-think that often occurs in offices. At one point in the novel, all of the "core group" in the office becomes convinced that their boss has breast cancer, despite the total lack of evidence. They even spend an entire workday trying unsuccessfully to source the rumor. Yet, they are so convinced that one of them confronts her. It's an effective, well-done device. The only other instance I can think of where such a thing worked so well was in Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City which was written in the second person: You do this, you do that. But that's a post for another day.

The book is funny, but gets at a lot of truths about the modern work environment. The petty power struggles. The ridiculous rules and mores, the little attempts to rebel at them, and the consequences of them. This book has received a lot of critical acclaim, and I agree that it's worth checking out.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Death Takes a Holiday. Library Diva Takes a Holiday. Results below.

OK, so I didn't REALLY take a holiday. I've been right here, working six-day weeks and late nights trying to get the new exhibits up and devoting most of my spare time to doing laundry, paying bills and playing World of Warcraft (level 55 now, bitches!!!). But somewhere in there, I found some time to visit my favorite library and pick some stuff up. I'd heard good things about Christopher Moore, so I got A Dirty Job.

I finished it late last night without ever really connecting to it. File this under "It's not you, it's me:" when you read half a chapter a day, right before bed or while you're standing at Office Max AGAIN waiting for them to finish your large format copies because your wranglings with the large format printer that everyone insists actually works continue to be unsuccessful, it doesn't really make for a comprehensive reading experience. I'm starting to understand why many smart executives go for such trashy books: it's because they're easy. Who knows, amybe that explains the proliferation of reality TV, too: it's for people who've been thinking all day and just want to relax, dammit. But anyway, I digress.

A Dirty Job is the tale of Charlie Asher, a regular joe who runs a secondhand shop. He loses his wife to childbirth, but right before she dies, he catches someone in her hospital room stealing a CD he'd brought her. Turns out, that person was a Death Merchant, who picks up soul vessels from those who are dying or recently deceased, and makes sure they get into the right hands. And now Charlie's one too. You can learn all this from reading the dust jacket, so I didn't really give away much of anything, but I have to say that the exposition on all of this was a little too long. For about sixty pages, Charlie couldn't figure out why all the stuff in his shop was glowing, why people kept bringing him things and then dropping dead the next day, why none of the pets he bought his baby daughter survived, and you're yelling all along: IT'S BECAUSE YOU'RE DEATH! This probably wasn't Moore's fault: he had no idea how this novel would be marketed when he wrote it, after all, and probably very little control over the decision.

Premise fiction is hard to get right. At times, the premise here overwhelmed the story. But overall, it wasn't bad. There is a lot of humor in the book, for being all about death and all. There's a lot of outright goofiness too: his daughter has the ability to kill with a word, that word of choice being "kitty"; a fellow Death Merchant is a seven-foot tall black dude named Minty Fresh; stuff like that. Like I said, I was kinda "meh" about the book. I know there are a lot of real Christopher Moore fans out there and I can see why, but I have no strong feelings one way or the other after reading this. I would try another, but wouldn't rush to do so.