Fiction: “Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan

Sweet ToothI feel like there was a period of time where I liked Ian McEwan.  I have read Atonement at least twice and loved it each time. I’ve read Enduring Love (mainly because Daniel Craig was in the film adaptation) but I thought it was good. I borrowed Amsterdam from the library when I went to Springfield to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest with My Dear Friend Sarah and then accidentally left Amsterdam in Springfield, and thus began my Never Take A Library Book On Vacation rule. (Books on CD are okay, though, because they don’t leave the car.)

I have not read every single book Ian McEwan has put out in the past decade. (In fact, the last McEwan book I read was Solar, and that was in 2011. Solar also left a very, very bad taste in my mouth.) But I was intrigued by the description in the book jacket of Sweet Tooth when I saw it in the library, and so I decided to give it a chance.

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Also, I should point out here, at the beginning, that I am going to totally Monster At The End of This Book this review. To reveal the depths of my disappointment and anger, I am going to have to reveal the end of the book. So please, consider this your SPOILER ALERT, and do not continue to read if you do not want the end of the book ruined.

This will be your only warning.

[Note From The Future: I will warn you once more before the spoiler actually shows up.]

This novel is ostensibly about Serena Frome (rhymes with “plume”), who is also our narrator. She’s a girl who has a love of books and novels and wants to major in English in college, but her mother forces her to major in Maths at Oxford instead. She does keep reading novels throughout the book, however, and turns her love of novel-reading into a series in her university magazine:

[…] She asked me to write a regular column, “What I Read Last Week.” My brief was to be “chatty and omnivorous.” Easy! I wrote as I talked, usually doing little more than summarizing the plots of the books I had just raced through, and, in conscious self-parody, I heightened the occasional verdict with a row of exclamation marks. [p. 6-7]

GEE THAT SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE I KNOW ONLY WITH LESS CAPSLOCK AND MORE EXCLAMATION MARKS I SHOULD PROBABLY LIKE THIS BOOK RIGHT

bates motel i was wrong

In her last semester at university, her mentor and lover, Tony Canning, begins grooming her towards a career in civil intelligence at MI-5. Serena and Tony would spend the weekend together at Tony’s cottage out of town, while his wife is away. Or maybe it’s during the week and he goes home on weekends. Whatever, it doesn’t really matter – Serena and Tony are fucking, and Tony’s wife doesn’t know.

One day (weekend or otherwise, it really doesn’t matter), Serena gets a stain or something on her blouse, and Tony tells her to leave it in the laundry basket. That weekend, Tony breaks up with her, because Tony’s wife found the blouse in the laundry basket.

So Serena – and I’m never really sure who she’s telling her story to, because this book is written in the first person, but the plot isn’t happening to Serena as she’s relating it to whoever – it’s like she’s writing a novel about her plot and – well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

The break-up. In her first reactions, Serena rationalizes Tony’s behavior, but does not relate her own feelings to the reader:

[Tony] had decided to cast himself as the victim, the wronged, the deceived, the rightly furious. He had persuaded himself that he had said nothing to me about the laundry basket. The memory had been erased, and for a purpose. But now he didn’t even know he’d erased it. He wasn’t even pretending. He actually believed in his disappointment. He really did think that I had done something devious and mean. He was protecting himself from the idea that he’d had a choice. [p. 29]

She just got broken up with. Dumped, even. She is our narrator, our window to the story. Where are her emotions? Where are her reactions?

[In all fairness, Serena may have discussed her emotions during this (and other) time(s) in the book. Y’all know that I don’t really take good notes, and then I write these months after reading the book so finer details get lost all the damn time. And to be honest, I probably noted that quote above because it reminded me of a certain person who kept telling me that his truck wasn’t abandoned in a parking garage, that it had been to a mechanic multiple times, and those stories had gone on for so long that it’s entirely possible that that certain person may have come to believe their own lies. I most likely didn’t even pick out this quote because of the book, but because of my own stupid little plot points that happen behind the computer screen.

Whatever. I’m rambling. But you get my point.]

[Hopefully.]

So anyway. Serena interviews with MI-5 and gets the job – some lower-level, analyst position or something, very bottom of the totem pole. Her supervisor is Max Greatorex, and yes, that is a name a character was given. Whatever. Anyway, somehow Max takes a shine to her – or maybe she lobbied for a bigger role, again, whatever – and after a few chapters or so Max promotes her to junior agent and puts her on the Sweet Tooth project.

Have I mentioned that Sweet Tooth takes place in the 1970s? So, in the ‘70s, Great Britain was … I don’t know, in the midst of an economic crisis and there were worries in amongst the government nerds that the rabble would rise up and overtake the monarchy and Parliament and turn to socialism. Or something. Whatever. So this Sweet Tooth project was designed to a) find poor, unknown writers and b) convince those writers that they have won a grant so s/he can write the next great British novel, and c) their contact at this grant foundation will also work as their editor, and d) the “editor” will help the writer show that the British government is jolly good, pip pip cheerio, no socialism to see here folks, wink wink nudge nudge, say no more.

[… isn’t Monty Python’s Flying Circus on Netflix now?]

[oh shit it is and now I will never get this goddamned review done]

And that’s how Serena meets Tom Haley.

So Tom Haley has written a couple of short stories and they were okay, but not great. He’s teaching at a college near Brighton and Serena travels down there, reading his short stories and commenting on them in her head. And, full disclosure, I cannot recall whether this particular story was one of those first or if it was one Tom wrote after meeting Serena, but whatever, it works here:

One story, completed in a first draft by the end of November, was narrated by a talking ape prone to anxious reflections about his lover, a writer struggling with her second novel. She has been praised for her first. Is she capable of another just as good? She is beginning to doubt it. The indignant ape hovers at her back, hurt by the way she neglects him for her labors. Only on the last page did I discover that the story I was reading was actually the one the woman was writing. The ape doesn’t exist, it’s a specter, the creature of her fretful imagination. No. And no again. Not that. Beyond the strained and ludicrous matter of cross-species sex, I instinctively distrusted this kind of fictional trick. I wanted to feel the ground beneath my feet. There was, in my view, an unwritten contract with the reader that the writer must honor. No single element of an imagined world or any of its characters should be allowed to dissolve on authorial whim. The invented had to be as solid and as self-consistent as the actual. This was a contract founded on mutual trust.  [p. 183]

thanks freddy foreshadowing

SERIOUSLY. Please read the above quote a couple of times and see if you can figure out what it means.

So let me jump ahead. Tom and Serena end up falling into bed together and she keeps reading his works and commenting on them. He writes a novella, and according to Serena, it’s terrible. It’s dystopian, it doesn’t have any hope to it – it’s like if Divergent didn’t have that quasi-romance going for it, as far as I can tell. And Serena is not impressed with Tom’s attitude towards society that comes out in his writing:

Here were the luxury and privilege of the well-fed man scoffing at all hopes of progress for the rest. T.H. Haley owed nothing to a world that nurtured him kindly, liberally educated him for free, sent him to no wars, brought him to manhood without scary rituals or famine or fear of vengeful gods, embraced him with a handsome pension in his twenties and placed no limits on his freedom of expression. This was an easy nihilism that never doubted that all we had made was rotten, never thought to pose alternatives, never derived hope from friendship, love, free markets, industry, technology, trade and all the arts and sciences. [p. 186]

GEE WHAT DOES THAT SOUND LIKE
DOES THAT SOUND LIKE MALE WHITE PRIVILEGE TO YOU TOO
OH GOOD IT’S NOT JUST ME

Anyways. Serena keeps reporting back to Max Greatorex on Tom’s progress (or lack thereof), and there’s a whole bit about how Serena and Max flirted with each other a lot, but when Serena made a move Max told her he was engaged, so she backed off, but now that she’s with Tom Max is super jealous about it and it’s all sorts of bullshit. But what really happens is Max gets so pissed at the fact that Serena’s fucking an asset (essentially) that Max gets Tom alone and Max tells Tom everything. And I mean everything.

That Serena works for MI-5. That the novel writing is just a front for anti-communist manifestos. That Serena had the hots for Max and her affair with Tom was just a front.

Big ol’ pile of bullshit.

The Sweet Tooth operation gets revealed in the papers as well. I don’t think that was the work of Max; I can’t remember, and I didn’t write it down. But the penultimate chapter is Serena fretting about her relationship with Tom, and how she can repair it in light of these revelations.

So here is where I get to the Monster at the End of This Book. If you want to remain unspoiled (though you may have an idea of what might be happening if you were paying attention), please hit the back button in your browser and wait for my next review to show up. It’s for the best.

I’m assuming if you’re still reading, you’re okay with being spoiled. So here we go.

Serena returns to the flat where she and Tom stayed, and there is a complete manuscript and a letter addressed to her on the kitchen table. And these are the final paragraphs of that letter:

What I’m working my way toward is a declaration of love and a marriage proposal. Didn’t you once confide to me your old-fashioned view that this was how a novel should end, with a “Marry me”? With your permission I’d like to publish one day this book on the kitchen table. It’s hardly an apologia, more an indictment of us both, which would surely bind us further. But there are obstacles. We wouldn’t want you or Shirley or even Mr. Greatorex to languish behind bars at Her Majesty’s leisure, so we’ll have to wait until well into the twenty-first century to be clear of the Official Secrets Act. A few decades is time enough for you to correct my presumptions on your solitude, to tell me about the rest of your secret work and what really happened between you and Max, and time to insert those paddings of the backward glance: in those days, back then, these were the years of … Or how about, “Now that the mirror tells a different story, I can say it and get it out of the way. I really was pretty.” Too cruel? No need to worry, I’ll add nothing without your say-so. We won’t be rushing into print.

[…] Tonight I’ll be on a plane to Paris to stay with an old school friend who says he can give me a room for a few days. When things have quietened down, when I’ve faded from the headlines, I’ll come straight back. If your answer is a fatal no, well, I’ve made no carbon, this is the only copy and you can throw it to the flames. If you still love me and your answer is yes, then our collaboration begins and this letter, with your consent, will be Sweet Tooth’s final chapter.

Dearest Serena, it’s up to you. [p. 300-301]

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FOR FUCK’S SAKE

Jesus Christ, I’m still angry about this. (GOOD.)

So. Ian McEwan tricked us again, much like he tricked the reader in Atonement. That’s why I didn’t feel like Serena’s reactions were shown to the reader – they weren’t.

Tom wrote Serena’s novel. Tom appropriated Serena’s voice and experiences, filtered them through his own perspective, and then (ostensibly) arranged to have it published. And I get that this is fiction, I really do. I guess what I’m the most mad about is the fact that Ian McEwan is kind of a dick.

“Oh, you’re reading my novel. Look, I’m writing another interesting, flawed female character with a very unique perspective! And I’ve made you like parts of her, right? You probably don’t like everything about her, but that’s okay – that’s life! But GUESS WHAT – you’re going to get to the very end of the book, at which point you will learn that it isn’t Serena who’s talking! It’s someone else! And this was all a front!

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Ad best of all, you don’t even have to figure it out for yourself – I’m going to tell you! Because I’m SO FUCKING CLEVER I CAN’T NOT TELL YOU ABOUT IT AH HA HA HA!”

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I expected so much better from you, Ian McEwan.

Grade for Sweet Tooth: no stars.

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Fiction: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

big little liesSo normally I begin my reviews with a story – how I picked this book up, what drew me to it, or what was going on at the time I was reading it. But this time, I’m just going to cut to the chase –

Big Little Lies WAS GREAT.

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Big Little Lies takes place outside of Sydney, Australia (the miniseries transplants everyone to Monterey, California), and focuses on three mothers – Madeline, mother of three; Celeste, mother of twin boys, Max and Josh; and Jane, single mother of one son, Ziggy.  The book starts on Trivia Night – an annual fundraiser party the parents throw, and this year, the theme is Audreys and Elvises, so the men dress up like Elvis Presley and the women dress up as Audrey Hepburns, and the whole concept is very weird to me, but when the climax of the book comes up, picture everyone wearing either really bad wigs and jumpsuits or little black dresses and pearls. A neighbor hears a commotion going on at the school and wonders what happened. And then, the book hears snippets from some of the other parents at the school, describing what they saw, similar to a Greek chorus.

The action then flashes back to the first day of school, when Ziggy joins the kindergarten and meets Madeline’s daughter, Chloe (I think her name is Chloe. I don’t have the book anymore, it’s been forever since I watched the miniseries, and Google is failing me. I’m gonna call her Chloe until I see otherwise). Madeline and Jane and their kids meet when Madeline is storming out of her SUV to rage at a teenager who’s on their phone while driving, and her ankle gives out and she falls in the road. Jane offers to drive her and Chloe to school, as they’re all going to the same place.

Madeline becomes fast friends with Jane, and defends her and Ziggy when Ziggy is accused of hitting another girl in his kindergarten class, Amabella. Thus begins the war between Madeline and Amabella’s mother, Renata.

Madeline has a fierce, protective personality. Compare her to her other best friend, Celeste, who is cool and collected and has by all appearances the best life – married to Perry, they are stupid rich with twin boys. Celeste gave up her law practice to be a stay at home mother, and they seem very happy.

The “big little lies” are multitudinous throughout the book, and the book does a great job of showing the consequences of those lies. Amabella was hit by another student on the first day of school, but is pressured to say the culprit was Ziggy. This causes Renata to hate Jane on sight and shun her and Ziggy at every event throughout the school year. Madeline fights back just as hard (and just as bitchily), by using her connections to get tickets to Disney on Ice on the same day as Amabella’s birthday party, so only half the kids show up to the birthday party in retaliation.

Jane lies to Ziggy about who is father is, because she doesn’t want to tell him that he was the product of a rape. Jane doesn’t even tell Madeline until about halfway through the book, because she feels ashamed for what happened, even though she knows she shouldn’t feel that way.

And Celeste lies about her marriage, because to tell the truth would mean admitting that Perry hits her, and sometimes she hits him back, but the hits are getting worse. She starts seeing a counselor who advises her to find an apartment where she can take herself and the boys. Perry finds out about the new apartment on the night of the Trivia event.

I don’t want to give too much more away. (I mean yes, it’s mostly because I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it on me anymore, and I took some pictures of some quotes but didn’t actually take notes on characters or plots.) If you don’t feel like reading a book but you’d rather watch eight-ish hours of television instead, I also highly recommend the first season of the miniseries from HBO. Reese Witherspoon plays Madeline, Celeste is perfectly portrayed by Nicole Kidman (who deserved every award she won for the role), and Shailene Woodley is an excellent fit for Jane. I managed to get the series on DVD from my library because I don’t pay for HBO, and it was worth it. It follows the book very well (with one exception: in the book, Madeline does not have an affair. Having said that, the miniseries was written with Liane Moriarty’s blessing, so I’m kind of okay with it).

So because I don’t want to spoil too much about it and instead just encourage you to read it if you have not yet already, I’m going to leave with two quotes that fall into the All About Alaina category.

“I wasn’t really enjoying it [being a lawyer],” said Celeste. Was this true? She had hated the stress. She ran late every day. But didn’t she once love some aspects of it? The careful untangling of a legal issue. Like math, but with words. [p. 135-136]

This is me now! I’m not a lawyer, but in my job, I work with the sales tax law. I work on detangling the crazy new sales tax exemptions that legislators want to put through, and in the off-season, I help with drafting new sales tax laws to hopefully go into effect in the next session. And it is very much like math, but with words. And I LOVE IT.

(I also really love watching people lose interest in what I’m talking about when I’m talking about tax laws. BUT I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR HOW MUCH I LIKE BEING THIS NERDY)

Okay. This quote is … it’s a story.

“Mummy, I am starved to death,” said the little boy.

“Have a muffin,” Madeline said gloomily. [p. 95]

THE “HAVE A MUFFIN” STORY

Last year, I was at my own trivia night with my friend Brad, and that particular week, my sister joined us. Missy works as a scheduler for a surgery medical unit. This was the Thursday after a pretty heinous snowstorm, and Missy was telling us about how some people didn’t even cancel their surgeries during the storm, that’s how hardcore Mainers are.

But then there was this one woman, who canceled her surgery first thing in the morning. Then, when the snow started to let up, she called back to try and … well …

Missy: So this woman calls BACK and says, “Hey, the snow’s better, can I reschedule my surgery for around eleven?” And I go, “No, we called the doctor and he’s moved on. We can reschedule for another day, but you cancelled for today.” And she goes, “But I haven’t had anything to eat, I can still do this!” And I say, “I don’t know what to tell you … have a muffin, I guess?”

At this point, BRAD LOSES IT. He’s fuckin’ dyin’. He’s fallen off the bench, laughing his stupid head off. He has never heard anything as funny in his life as my sister telling someone to have a muffin. It is apparently the funniest thing he’s ever goddamn heard, and he’s got twenty years on me.

It is now our favorite in-joke. And I can’t wait for when Missy comes to trivia this year, blueberry muffin hiding in her purse, just waiting for the best moment to tell Brad to have a muffin, because it’s going to be AMAZING.

So I was really happy when a really good book quoted my new favorite inside joke to me in the exact same words. It was … it was magic.

Grade for Big Little Lies: 5 stars

Fiction: “The Art Forger” by B.A. Shapiro

art forgerThis was a book I’ve had on my bookshelf for at least a couple of years. A spur-of-the-moment purchase, it has languished on my “historical fiction” shelf next to that last book in Philippa Gregory’s Wideacre saga for quite a while. But it turns out, it isn’t historical fiction at all.

The Art Forger takes place in Boston, and it has its roots in the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist. The narrator, Claire Roth, is an artist hoping to make it in the big leagues. She’s living in a studio apartment in Southie and has a former colleague and gallery owner coming over to see her latest series of oils. But what Aiden Markel actually brings is better and also worse than the shot at a solo show at his gallery.

Claire supplements her income (such as it is) by painting legitimate forgeries for online sales.

I glance across the room at the two paintings sitting on easels. Woman Leaving Her Bath, a nude climbing out of a tub and attended to by a clothed maid, was painted by Edgar Degas in the late nineteenth century; this version was painted by Claire Roth in the early twenty-first. The other painting is only half-finished; Camille Pissaro’s The Vegetable Garden with Trees in Blossom, Spring, Pontoise à la Roth. Reproductions.com pays me to paint them, then sells the paintings online as “perfect replicas” whose “provenance only an art historian could discern” for ten times my price. These are my latest work. [p. 4]

Aiden gives Claire what the back of the paperback calls “a Faustian bargain” – paint a forgery, much in the same way she does for Reproductions.com, tell no one, and when the job is done, he’ll give her a solo show at his gallery.

After giving it a bit of thought, Claire agrees. And she’s both surprised but also not when she learns that the painting she needs to forge is one by Degas, last seen in 1990 the night of the Isabella Stewart Gardner heist. And it doesn’t appear to be a forgery.

So look. This book was great. I can’t wait to forget about it and read it again in like, five years (like I’m probably going to do with Jitterbug Perfume or Gilligan’s Wake again in the next few months). The characters were great, including those of Boston and also Southie. And I really liked the way the relationship between Claire and Markel develops over the course of the book. This book was so great, I’m not even going to tell you more about the plot and stuff, and I’ll just wait for y’all to discover its greatness on your own.

But what I am going to talk about, because I feel it made the book even greater, for me, was its connection to one of my top five favorite movies of all time that, let’s be real, I totally and completely made up. The connection between the movie and the book, I mean. I didn’t make up the movie. Or the book. Or – y’know what? you get it.

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How To Steal a Million is a fantastic movie. I almost waxed poetic about it a couple of book reviews ago, but I refrained. BECAUSE I CAN DESCRIBE IT IN DETAIL HERE!

When people name Audrey Hepburn movies they love, usually My Fair Lady, Roman HolidaySabrina, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s comes first. But for me, it’s this one, about an art heist gone wrong.

Audrey plays Nicole Bonnet, the daughter of an art forger. Papa’s specialty is Van Gogh, but as it turns out, forgery is a trait passed down from his father. Grandpapa carved a forgery of the Cellini Venus. And in the beginning of the movie, Papa has just allowed a prestigious Parisian museum to display the Cellini Venus – their Cellini Venus – in a short exhibition.

(Fun fact!: Benvenuto Cellini was a real sculptor, too!)

The fun begins in the movie when Audrey stays home from the museum gala, reading a magazine full of Hitchcock stories –

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– when she hears a squeak coming from downstairs. She sneaks down in her nightie, grabs one of her dad’s antique pistols from the hallway, and surprises Peter O’Toole, who appears to be stealing a painting!

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She decides to not call the police when she realizes that the Van Gogh painting Peter O’Toole was going to steal is a forgery because she doesn’t want an investigation to reveal her father’s … hobby. But then the antique pistol accidentally goes off and she has to take care of Peter O’Toole’s flesh wound (“Happens to be my flesh,” he grouses) and drive him back to his hotel (I can’t drive a stolen car!” “Same principle – four gears forward, one reverse.”) and if anyone wants to know where I learned to love banter between romantic leads, IT IS THIS MOVIE

(There are no good video clips online, otherwise I’d link you to all of them. And unfortunately, it’s no longer available to stream on Netflix or Hulu. You can rent the movie on Amazon for $3.99. OR, you could come to my house and I’ll make you watch it with me.)

So Audrey takes Peter back to his hotel, drops him off, and then goes home. WHAT AUDREY DOESN’T KNOW is that Peter is not an art thief, but an ART DETECTIVE (no, I’m not sure that’s a real thing, but we’re gonna go with it anyway), looking for evidence that her father is a forger! That’s why he chose that particular painting!

CUT TO:

About a week later, when the museum insurance guy visits Audrey and Papa and asks Papa to sign the insurance papers, which he does, but THEN, Insurance Guy wants to know if Papa is going to be present at the technical examination.

Y’know. When they test the statue to make sure it’s not … a fake?

So now Audrey and Papa are in BIG TROUBLE. When the insurance guys test the Cellini, they’re going to find out that it’s a forgery. So Audrey does the only thing she can think of –

She calls her art burglar pal Peter O’Toole and arranges to meet him in his hotel bar, while wearing the perfect subtle outfit that one should wear when arranging a heist.

Audrey in the bar

HER EYESHADOW IS DIAMONDS

HER ENTIRE OUTFIT IS BLACK LACE

NICOLE BONNET, MY ORIGINAL QUEEN

So anyway, she asks Peter to help her steal her own statue from the museum, and of course he agrees, because diamond eyeshadow and black lace cat burglar mask. And hijinks ensue. And it’s an adorable movie.

And as a bonus look into Alaina’s Messed-Up Psyche, the movie is also probably the first instance of Alaina’s Sexual Kryptonite – a.k.a., a man wearing a white Oxford button-down shirt, with the collar and top couple of buttons undone, and no tie. I always blamed that on the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, but now that I think about it, my first viewing of How to Steal a Million probably predates me watching Gilligan.

Okay, but seriously, look at this –

peter o'toole smoking

Goddammit. Such a beautiful man.

ANYWAY. Here’s why I ranted so much about a relatively obscure romantic comedy from the 1960s – I found references to the movie (or made up references to please my crazy little head) within The Art Forger.

When Claire is narrating about different forgers, she mentions Han van Meegeren –

Probably the most brilliant […] was Han van Meegeren, a frustrated Dutch painter who spent six years in the 1930s formulating the chemical and technical processes needed to create a forgery that would hoodwink the dealers and critics who refused to recognize his genius. He used toaster parts to create an oven to bake his canvases and was a stunning success. He made a fortune until one of his “Vermeers” was found among postwar Nazi loot, and he had to prove he’d forged it to avoid charges of treason for selling a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. [p. 30-31]

Papa, during one of his speeches about his calling, name-drops van Meegeren! And I had no idea he wasn’t a fake person until I read this book!

Then there’s this, where Claire and Markel are discussing the buyer of the forged Degas she’s painting:

“But if he can’t sell it or show it to anyone, if it’s not a status symbol, and if he’s not going to use it on the black market, what’s in it for him?”

Markel leans back into the couch and sips his champagne. “It’s the rush of knowing you have it, that it’s yours and no one else but you can ever see it.” […] “It’s like an addiction. No, it is an addiction, one serious collectors can’t and probably don’t want to control.” [p. 166]

Another character in the movie is Davis Leland, an American tycoon who happens to be a rabid art collector. He gets close to Audrey/Nicole in hopes of purchasing one of her father’s collection. In the end, he gets a piece of art, but he understands that he can never display it.

So there you have it. More of a review for How to Steal a Million, and I’m only partly sorry about it, but if I discuss more of the book I think I’ll give too much away. I really liked it, and read it very quickly. I liked the details of the art forgery and, as I said above, I really liked the relationship between Claire and Markel. Give it a shot, I think you’ll like it too.

Grade for The Art Forger: 4 stars

Fiction: “Up Close And Dangerous” by Linda Howard

up close and dangerousHoo boy.  HOO BOY. Hoooooly shit. I –

Note From The Past: Dear Alaina. You are writing this at 11:16 p.m. on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. You are writing this out of order because you have a lot of

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and you don’t want to be scratching your head in seven or eight months when you finally get around to this book in the pecking order, and wonder what the fuck it was about.

IT WAS ABOUT SOME BULLSHIT, I HOPE TO GOD I’LL REMEMBER THAT MUCH

*deep breath* Okay. Here it goes. (Don’t edit this, Future!Alaina – I mean, if there’s some grammatical shit or something, that’s fine, but – I feel like this entry needs to be pure. Pure like Dynasty.)

(Maaaaaan, I hope I still love Dynasty in seven or eight months.)

(Note From The Future: YOU ABSOLUTELY DO STILL LOVE DYNASTY IN SEVEN OR EIGHT MONTHS. Celia Machado DIED and Alexis lived in a HOSPITAL FOR TWO WEEKS and she came back to Dynasty Manor in a red crazy pantsuit AND AN OLD PERSON SCOOTER and she accidentally knocked Celia’s urn off the table AND KILLED HER AGAIN and Alaina? THAT HAPPENED IN THE FIRST TEN MINUTES OF THE SEASON PREMIERE ❤ ❤ ❤ )

So ….. hi. How are ya. Did y’all watch the Town Hall on CNN with the kids from Stoneman Douglas? I did. And it actually put me in a better mood and calmed me down from my RAGEFIRE that this fucking book put me in.

I haven’t been reading much lately, but what I have been reading has been absolute trash. (Just scroll down in the blog; you’ll see.) And the last time I was at the library, I picked up three romance novels from authors that I’ve either read before and thought I enjoyed or have heard of and wanted to try. (That’s going to be a sentence you’ll want to edit in seven or eight months.) (Hey, did I mention I took two melatonin before attempting to write this? This will be fun! or else.)

I may have read something by Linda Howard a while ago, but I can’t recall if I did, which title it was, or when I read it. So while at the library, I was in the mood for some good ol’ romantic suspense – something along the same lines as Sandra Brown’s Charade, or Catherine Coulter-ery-yet-much-better-written. I wanted some sex in my violence, and no, I’m not ashamed to admit that.

The book jacket synopsis of Up Close and Dangerous sounded intriguing, so I took it home.

A mysterious plane crash … a dangerous trek through the Idaho wilderness … a smoldering attraction … and a deadly game of cat and mouse. […]

Bailey Wingate’s scheming adult stepchildren are surprised when their father’s will leaves Bailey in control of their fortune, and war ensues. A year later, while flying from Seattle to Denver in a small plane, Bailey nearly dies herself when the engine sputters – and then falls.

Cam Justice –

Yeah, his name is Cameron Justice. Cam for short. He’s a pilot. I just – sorry. I’ll go on.

Cam Justice, her sexy Texan pilot –

[RECORD SCRATCH]

I mean, really? He has to be from Texas? Do all pilots come from Texas? I have never read a contemporary romance starring a male pilot that does not come from Texas. Just once I’d like to read something where the pilot is from, I dunno, how about Duluth?

So I thought the premise sounded interesting. Someone sabotaged their plane and wanted to kill Bailey! This will be different and in no way terrible!

Reader, I was wrong.

First off – there is entirely too much about survival tactics in this book. And yeah, I get it, plane crashed, they survived, but there are injuries, how do rich people survive in the wilderness after a plane crash? I mean, it’s not like there are literally dozens of these types of stories in media [Lost, The Mountain Between Us, Soap Operas, Air Force One (because why not?), I’m sure there are more, there’s probably been a brand new one in the seven or eight months that have passed since writing this cover of The Rant Song]!

SERIOUSLY. AT ONE POINT THIS HAPPENS –

Faced with the brutal cold of a night at high altitude, they could either live together or die separately. [p. 122]

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Fuckin’ Lost.

So here’s the other thing about this book that I think I need to get off my chest before I continue –

I did not finish reading this.

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I KNOW.

Look, I know what I said four years ago, wherein, thanks to a dear friend –

hahahaha I know the melatonin’s starting to kick in cuz I just realized two things:

  • I was going to say “thanks to a dear friend whose vehicle is still abandoned in a parking garage over a year later[*]”, but then I remembered that I actually named that friend in the review that I’m linking to up there, and maybe I shouldn’t make that link so fucking explicit? but then —
  • I did the thing anyway

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[*Note From The Future: The car was FINALLY towed in April of 2018. By my estimate, it was abandoned in the parking garage for sixteen months.]

ANYWAY. I have tried very very hard to finish reading every book I start. But I couldn’t do it with this one. The writing is scores better than anything Catherine Coulter or Laurell K. Hamilton have ever put out – and yeah, I get it, that’s not saying much, but still – but I couldn’t power through it.

Because Cam Justice is a fucking dick.

There’s this whole shit in the beginning of the book about how Bailey keeps her walls up to keep from getting emotionally messy with people. HI THAT’S A PERSONAL SHOUT OUT TO ME AND I TAKE OFFENSE TO THAT. And Cam gets concussed during the crash landing and Bailey takes care of him and it’s weird to him, because he thought she was a stuck-up bitch.

If he’d ever wondered what it would be like to be marooned with her, which he hadn’t, he’d have been certain she would be either a whiny, useless, royal pain in the ass, or a bitchy, demanding, royal pain in the ass. Either way, she’d have been a PITA. [p. 89]

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But THIRTY PAGES LATER, he decides he’s going to “make her his”. They were lying together – laying together? Y’know, fuck it, I am taking a moment and saying I don’t give a shit which verb it should be there. They were laying side by side in the shelter Bailey managed to cobble together, and they were embracing pretty much to conserve body heat so they didn’t freeze, when Cam gets a bit of an erection.

So this happens:

Bailey, though, had all the signs of being difficult. She hadn’t been embarrassed by his hard-on, but neither had she shown the least bit of interest. Because she’d been married he had to assume she wasn’t a lesbian, so she was either totally, completely uninterested in him, or it was those damn walls she’d built around herself. [p. 126]

I’mma stop you right there for a second. I’m not actually done with that paragraph, but I gotta —

WHY CAN’T IT BE BOTH? WHY CAN’T SHE BE COMPLETELY UNINTERESTED IN HIM, AND HAVE WALLS SHE’S BUILT AROUND HERSELF? WHY ARE THOSE TWO THOUGHTS MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE, CAM?!

And, what, a woman doesn’t take an interest in small talk, and that makes her …. a lesbian?

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Fuck off, Cam Justice. Like that’s even your real name.

 So the paragraph ends like this:

Either way, he was anticipating a challenge. He almost smiled in predatory satisfaction. [p. 126]

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“Maybe it’s the concussion,” I said. “Maybe I’m inflating what was going on. Maybe this will all make sense and NOT SEEM SO RAPEY in a hundred pages.”

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Nope – kept getting worse.

This is after he realizes the plane was sabotaged – and not in the fun, Beastie Boys way.

She was completely unprepared for the way his expression changed, morphing from the cold, set anger of the past several minutes to something that was almost more alarming. His gaze grew heated, the curve of his mouth that of a predator closing in on his prey. [p. 190-191]

Let me unpack this for you. Cam Justice is able to walk around under his own power – it’s been a couple of days since the crash – and he’s just learned that a) his plane was tampered with to crash and b) Bailey Wingate or whatever her name is was the target, he was just supposed to be collateral damage. But he puts a silver lining on the crash – now that they’re stranded together, he’s found out that Bailey’s not actually a bitch, and also, she’s attractive and not wearing a bra.

From Bailey’s perspective – which is what that quoted-above paragraph is supposed to be showing us – his predatory look is almost more alarming than his “shit someone tried to kill us” look.

AND THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE HOT, APPARENTLY.

“Alaina,” you must be thinking, “let’s be real. You’ve read some shit. You read The Maze, willingly. You’re sitting there, right now, thinking about actually reading the next book in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, and that shit is terrible. Are you seriously telling us, your three readers, that this misogyny that is actually typical for this type of novel so offended you that you stopped reading?”

Yes. Yes, I am.

Picture it – Sicily. (Wait, no.) I’m on the elliptical, and I’m reading this while I’m working out. Cam Justice has just figured out that they can use the dead battery (or whatever) to start a fire, and they’re all excited that they figured out thermodynamics. They’ve got a fire going, and then this happens:

“I’m being honorable here,” he said, slanting a glittering look at her, “and giving you fair warning. But this is probably the only time, so don’t get used to it.”

She started to ask, Fair warning about what? but was afraid she knew the answer. Maybe “afraid” was the wrong word. Alarmed, yes. Annoyed. Terrified. And most of all, excited.

“When I thought we would be rescued, I tried my damnedest not to do anything to scare you off,” he said as casually as if they were discussing the stock market. “I knew you’d be back on your own territory, able to call the shots and avoid me if I made my move too soon. But now, I know rescue isn’t coming, and I have you to myself for days, maybe as long as a couple of weeks. It’s only fair to tell you I plan to have you naked in a day or so, once we’re at a warmer altitude and we’re stronger, feeling better.” [p. 206]

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LIKE, FOR FUCKS SAKE

REALLY

“I wanted to let you know that I’m going to have sex with you, whether you want to or not, because the plane crashed and we’re alone in the wilderness.”

FUCK RIGHT OFF WITH THIS BULLSHIT

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OH MY GOD I AM SO ANGRY ALL OVER AGAIN

“Wait, wait, Alaina – maybe she turned him down? You stopped reading, you don’t know that for sure!”

Hi, have you met me? I’m Harry Burns. I read the end of the book, motherfuckers!

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They sleep together. It’s inevitable. There’s the usual, “I don’t know if I should sleep with him” equivocation, but it comes from a place of “I’ve put up all these walls and I don’t want to be emotionally vulnerable,” and not from the “HE IS TAKING ADVANTAGE OF YOUR TRAUMA TO USE YOU SEXUALLY HOW DO YOU NOT FUCKING SEE THAT” place.

I was so angry –

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But also, I ended up leveling up my elliptical level by about 50 – I started pedaling so hard because I was SO FUCKING ANGRY, I think I burned about seventy billion calories.

I can’t remember the last time a book made me angry. I am so mad that that type of arrogance on the part of the male character was common and expected and not fucking challenged at any point in the editing process.

So. I stopped reading it. I’m taking it back to the library tomorrow, and good riddance to it. But now it’s 1 a.m., and I really should be asleep. Maybe Future!Alaina has some other thoughts, but for now, Present!Alaina is going to try and erase this book from her poor, traumatized tired brain.

Note From The Future: Future!Alaina has no other thoughts; Past!Alaina did a pretty good job, all in all.

Grade for Up Close and Dangerous: Twilight Stars

Fiction: “Dirty Love” by Andre Dubus III

dirty loveMerry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate, Happy Monday or whatever!

Dirty Love was another book during one of my many library binges this year. For reals, I know I bitch about the Yarmouth library (a lot, and I only feel slightly bad about it), but I’ve never left the library empty-handed. In fact, I usually take out six books at a time, and then only finish two during the first three week period. Then I renew the other four, and at the end of the renewal period at least one book is going back unread and the other two are going back late.

I’m pretty sure that the only reason I picked this off the shelf is because of the title, so, four for you, Andre Dubus III, you go Andre Dubus III!

Andre Dubus III also wrote The House of Sand and Fog, which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film that I have not watched, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Shoreh Agdashloo, whose name I love to pronounce. Also, she’s fantastic. However, I have not read The House of Sand and Fog, so I have no idea what it’s about.

Fun Fact!: I went into my office a few weeks ago to get a book for my mother to read, and I found a copy of The House of Sand and Fog on my bookcase. I have no idea where that came from, or when I purchased it. Although now that I think about it, I may have taken it from the remnants of the huge yard sale we did this summer … but regardless, while it wasn’t as weird as that time my Dad found six Silence of the Lambs posters that he claims I purchased and I have no memory of doing so, it is still a tad weird.

SO ANYWAY. Dirty Love is a series of short stories-slash-novellas, and each deals with a romantic relationship and the downsides of all of them. It’s so heartwarming! Merry Christmas, everyone!

The first story, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” tells the story of Mark Welch’s divorce. Mark is a project manager, and he’s been married to Laura for a long time. They divorce because Laura has fallen in love with Frank Harrison, Jr., but Mark is still living in the apartment over the garage.

From what I recall (because remember, I read this in April, it’s been a while, I said I was going to get better at this, clearly I lied), the meat of this story comes from the character deep dive we do on Mark. The story is told from Mark’s perspective, which means the salient points flow through Mark’s head, kind of like a stream of consciousness. So it starts off with the current problem Mark’s dealing with, but then he’ll remember something from years before, like this gem of advice from his former mentor:

“Your problem is you’ve subscribed to the wrong motivational theory. That’s what big sisters do. They believe everyone has their heart in the right place at the right time and all you have to do is point them in the right direction. Wrong. People are naturally fucking lazy. They’d rather lie around all day eating, fucking, and scratching their balls. That’s why pricks are needed, my friend. It’s called micromanagement and it works.” [p. 22]

And Mark took that work advice to heart, and let it bleed into his personal life. HOO BOY, did HE make good choices!

Here’s what I’ve learned from micromanagers: they are GREAT at getting involved with everyone else’s shit, but they are COMPLETELY INCAPABLE of managing their own. And Mark Welch is an excellent example of that in literary form.

And he used that micromanage-ey trait when he first met Laura, as his realtor:

But there was something so accepting about this woman [Laura] who had sold him his condo that he was soon inviting her into it, the sun low over the water. Mark distracted by the gold in her hair, her deep green eyes, her high cheekbones and straight clavicle, and he liked how she wanted to hear about him, his job and his boyhood, but not like she was interrogating him or sizing him up. There was a calm to her, a passivity he could only do one thing with – to take it in his two hands and begin to shape, then manage her as he saw fit. [p. 79-80]

Let me be clear: Mark is an asshole. But – like with many assholes – sometimes, what they say has a ring of truth to them. For instance:

[…] the sounds of a television in an open window somewhere, baseball again, the Red Sox, and he was a good athlete in high school, fast enough to play in college though he did not for he knew he was not good enough to play behind that so what was the point? It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t the logical thing to do, and he is so tired of logic, so tired of managing every last detail of each and every day, and how sweet to let go of the wheel and let someone else drive […] [p. 49]

As someone who, for the longest time, kept her focus on the practical choices and rarely deviated down a spontaneous, frivolous path, that paragraph stung, a bit. However, my Type A control won’t even let me think of passing the wheel to someone else. (When Beyoncé asked all the women who’re independent to throw our hands up at her, you bet your ass I threw mine the highest and hardest. Not that she could see, but still)

And then, going back to Mark’s assholery (which Word recognizes as a real word, go me!), there’s this moment where his lover, Lisa, pisses him off about something and he grabs her wrist:

“Fuck you.” A flame flares up behind his left eye, the back of her knuckles sliding away like a snake’s head, and he is on his feet, the plastic chair sailing out away from them, the clatter of it on the neighbor’s roof before falling though Mark’s eyes are not on it but on Lisa Schena’s, her wrist locked between his squeezing fingers.

“What gives you the right to do that, huh? What?

“Let go of me.” Laura’s words, not this woman’s, but they come from her mouth like some memorized lines from a script written before any of them were born. [p. 68-69]

YES ALL WOMEN. #MeToo

The second story in the book is “Marla.” It’s about Marla. Marla’s a curvy, overweight woman who is slightly obsessive about her body image (as all curvy women can be). She’s never dated before, and she works at a bank. She meets Dennis, who’s got a bit of a dad bod, I guess? My notes from when I finished the book note that Dennis is also “curvy”, so I’m going to go with it. Dennis is a fictional character, what’s he gonna do, yell at me for using a feminine descriptor? Go fuck yourself, Dennis.

Anyway, Dennis flirts with Marla at the bank and she agrees to go out on a date with him. And they keep dating, to the point where she moves into his apartment. The problem in this story is that Marla can feel herself slipping away from herself slowly as she goes through the relationship. First, Dennis always showers immediately after sex, which gives Marla a bit of a complex. She moves into his apartment, and finds herself always watching the movies that Dennis wants to watch. Dennis gets up from the table after dinner and immediately washes the dishes, like, he can’t wait five minutes to talk before those dishes need to be cleaned. Marla talks to her friends about the relationship, and she’s confused; after all, this is her first one. At first it’s nice that he dotes on her and she feels that they’re in love, but at the same time, she recognizes that he is subsuming her sense of self, and she’s letting it happen, because they’re in a relationship.

Remember when I said I was independent? While I may be curvy and neurotic like Marla, and yes, I haven’t really dated, but as nice as the dude is? This story will never happen to Alaina. And yes, this story did hit a bit close to home at times.

MOVING ON. Third story, “The Bartender.” I didn’t take many notes on this one. The titular bartender is Robert Doucette. He’s married to Althea, who is expecting their first child. Robert bartends at an oceanfront hotel (I’m gonna call it the Seafarer, but I’m 83% sure I’m wrong). He flirts with the waitresses, but he does so as a front; he considers himself a failed poet. He went to college for an English degree, and hoped to write poetry. He considers his bartending a failure, and he keeps searching for people to appreciate him.

He remembers advice a former teacher had given him about a poem Robert had written, in which the poem deals directly with Robert’s adolescence and his hopes of escaping his hometown:

That poet-in-residence had told Robert he should start looking at other people instead of expecting everyone to look at him. [p. 155]

So obviously, Robert totally learned his lesson.

Over the summer, Robert has an affair with Jackie, a waitress at the bar. Althea discovers the affair and gets so upset (I think she may also fall?) that she suffers a placental abruption. Robert races to the hospital to learn that the baby is born early.

The final story is also the titular story, “Dirty Love.” “Dirty Love” concerns itself with Devon, an 18-year-old high school dropout who lives with her Uncle Francis. She dropped out of high school when a video of her blowing her boyfriend was posted on the internet and her father found out.

Uncle Francis is in his 80s and a widower. He’s a former teacher, and also a former drunk. His wife, Beth, loved him dearly but also nagged and complained at him and his drinking in an attempt to force him to be better. He tries to tutor Devon in-between her shifts as a maid at the Seafarer in the hopes of getting her to college, but Devon doesn’t have any ambition to that.

At night, Devon wades through the misery found on ChatRoulette (though it may have been named something different in the book), and meets Hollis. They chat and have conversations, and she tries to hide her late-night conversations from Francis because she doesn’t think he’ll understand.

At one point, Charlie, Devon’s father, visits Francis and wants to have Devon come home. But Francis doesn’t want that to happen, because Devon’s being there has given Francis something to do in his retirement, and he feels useful for the first time in a long while.

“Dirty Love” ends with hope. I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to, because I can’t recall the exact ending, but I know Devon leaves Francis with the intent of escaping her roots. Whether that will end up like Robert’s attempt or not is left up to the reader. But speaking of independence, this quote from Francis stuck with me:

[…] for if he’s learned nothing in all his years he’s learned that, that from our first gasps for air till our last, we simply want to be left alone to do what we want to do when we want to do it, and because this is rarely the case we crave oblivion in any way it presents its dark, sweet self to us. [p. 287]

You, me, and Greta Garbo, Francis.

Overall, I liked the four stories; I thought they were very well-written, and offered four different perspectives on romantic love and the pitfalls therein. I’m a little proud of myself for finding this after Valentine’s Day, because this feels like something I’d try to read around that time and really depress myself; but I didn’t, so, inadvertent progress, or something.

Merry Christmas!

Grade for Dirty Love: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

blind-assassinThe Blind Assassin was … well, I don’t know what it was. It’s been so long since I decided to read it that I can’t remember why I wanted to read it anymore. Maybe because it would have been a valid Lunch Break Book while I was reading Just Like Heaven. Maybe because The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books but I was feeling guilty for not reading anything else by Ms. Atwood. Maybe it’s because I own the book but hadn’t read it yet.

Regardless, I decided to read it, and … ended up finishing it in entirely too long a span of time – one month, to be exact. (She says, writing a blog post about a book she finished in April.)

Full disclosure: this is the fourth time I have attempted to write this review. I am not sure I am up to the task. It’s a dense book with multiple points of view and styles, and I have been trying very hard to not give away spoilers. I’m going to try and just … word-vomit this all out at once and move on, and if in another ten years I look back because I think I want to read The Blind Assassin and hope that my review will remind me of what it was about … sorry, Ten Years From Now Alaina, you were never a good reviewer to begin with, and what did you expect?

So, generally speaking, The Blind Assassin is the story of Iris and Laura Chase. They grew up in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, the daughters of a button manufacturer who made a name for himself prior to World War I. Laura is a sheltered child, and as we’re learning of her story through Iris’s remembrances, it’s hard to say if this perception is accurate.

At a company picnic, Iris and Laura meet Alex Thomas, a Socialist who is passing through Port Ticonderoga. He gets involved with a riot and the girls hide him in the attic for a spell; both girls fall in love with Alex a bit. Shortly after, the economy turns and the button factory deals with many losses. In an effort to remain afloat, Iris’s father sells the button factory to shirt manufacturer Richard Griffen; he also gives permission for Richard to marry Iris at the same time. Iris’s father’s health declines quickly into alcoholism, so Laura is sent to boarding school to get her out from under Iris’s feet.

Iris grows miserable in her arranged marriage. The only bright spot is the birth of her daughter, Aimee. Then Richard sends Laura away for what appears to be no reason. She is sent to a sanitarium and no one will tell Iris what happened. The assumption is that Laura and Alex Thomas were having an affair and Laura’s fragile mind couldn’t keep up the secrecy. Alex joins the forces in World War II, and after Laura learns of Alex’s death, she steals Iris’s car and drives it off a bridge, killing herself.

The death of Laura Chase is actually the first thing we learn when we begin reading The Blind Assassin; we hear Iris’s remembrance of that day, followed immediately by Laura’s obituary in the paper. Then, we jump into a few chapters of he novel-within-the-novel, titled The Blind Assassin and written by Laura Chase; Iris had it published posthumously.

 

The Blind Assassin that Laura Chase wrote stars two anonymous lovers: the man is in hiding for something, moving from flophouse to flophouse; the woman is in a strained, unhappy marriage to a rich man. In-between bouts of lovemaking, the man tells the woman a science fiction story about a blind assassin. As we read Laura’s novel within Iris’s remembrances, we are led to believe that Laura and Alex are the anonymous lovers in the story.

There is a lot more to the story – both Iris’s and Laura’s. But the fact of the matter is – it has been so long since I read this that the details are no longer fresh in my mind. Additionally, I feel that if I talk about it more or get into more depth, some key notes in the story would be lost and spoiled for a new reader.

What I can say is, while I appreciated the style in which Ms. Atwood told her tale, I find that I will most likely reread The Handmaid’s Tale before rereading The Blind Assassin. I’m also interested in reading more of her truly science-fictioney novels, so as soon as I find those, I’ll pick them up from the library.

Ms. Atwood is an amazing writer; The Blind Assassin won’t be one of my favorite books, that’s all.

Grade for The Blind Assassin: 2 stars

Fiction: “Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho

veronika“Goodness, Alaina, this sounds like a cheery little thing. What on earth could have made you want to read something like this?”

“First of all, Little Miss Opinionated, let me remind you that I have read a lot of books in my day, and every once in a while I can appreciate when a book tells me in its title what the story is going to be about. Second of all, the copy I had was a total of 210 short, well-spaced-out pages, so I read it in like, a week. And thirdly, it’s a master work of literature. No other factors were used in my decision-making when it came to deciding to read the book.”

[Spoiler alert: Sarah Michelle Gellar also starred in the film adaptation, and, much like Gillian Anderson, I’ll watch Sarah Michelle Gellar in anything. And before y’all get on your high horse about Buffy and how she was awesome in that, yes, I agree with you, but I’ve been a fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar since she was the original Kendall Hart on All My Children. I remember when she got Erica all riled up enough to stab Dimitri with a letter opener! Basically, when it comes to Sarah Michelle Gellar, step off, I’ve loved her longer than you.]

I am constantly competitive with myself. I keep records of what books I read in what month (which comes in handy now, seeing as how I couldn’t remember if I had read this in March or February, because it takes me for-fucking-ever to review books now, for stupid reasons) per year, dating back to before this blog. So I’m constantly playing a game with myself when it comes to reading: have I read more books in [MONTH] than I did in [MONTH] last year? How many books had I read by this time last year, and have I passed that mark?

At the beginning of March, I had finished my ninth book in 2016 (Live and Let Die), coming in under the wire thanks to February 29th. Compare that to 2015, on March 1st, I had only completed 4 books. And because I wanted to get a head-start on 2016, hoping to finally achieve that elusive, 50-title goal, I picked a couple of short books in March in an attempt to pad out my head start.

Wandering through the shelves of the Yarmouth library, I found this title, and was very encouraged by the thinness of the book. Plus, I could almost do a That’s What She Read-Movies Alaina’s Never Seen tie-in, if I wanted to. (I decided I didn’t want to, because I actually did watch the film [it’s on Netflix right now!], and it matches the book’s plot very well. It wouldn’t provide the same delight as my Tie-In with Moonraker did.)

As an added bonus, I had downloaded a spreadsheet years ago about the 1,001 books to read before you die, and Veronika Decides to Die was one of them. Another checkmark earned!

The story takes place in Mr. Coelho’s native Slovakia. Veronika is 24 years old, and she decides to commit suicide, as there is no joy to be found in her life now, or in the future. I didn’t take a picture or copy the quote before returning the book to the library, but her reasoning was– actually, I’m going to quote the film, because it might be actually lifted from the book, but even if it wasn’t, it’s an excellent summary:

“Well, let’s see. After you decide that I’m depressed, or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? Well I know hundreds of people on them and they’re all doing just fine. Really. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants, have dinner with my parents and persuade them I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. And one day some guy will ask me to marry him. He’ll be nice enough. That’ll make my parents very happy. The first year we’ll make love all the time, and in the second and third less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding onto jobs, paying mortgages; it’ll keep us on an even keel for a while. Then about ten years into it he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and I’m too tired. And I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress… myself. We’ll get past it. A few years later he’ll have another one. This time I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know because somehow kicking up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days sometimes wishing my kids could have the life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine. Really.” [Veronika Decides to Die, 2009 [via imdb.com]]

Well, neighbors call on Veronika when she’s in the midst of her pill-induced overdose, and when she wakes up, she’s in Villette, a state-sponsored insane asylum, put there by her parents in an attempt to get her help. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Igor (not making it up), tells her she was in a coma for two weeks, and also, the overdose created a heart condition, and now she only has one week to live. And no, he won’t release her from the asylum so she can overdose again; she needs to be monitored.

Basically, the whole thing is a sham: Dr. Igor only told her that she was dying so she could learn how wonderful life is: to treat every day she has on Earth as a miracle, and to inspire her to live life to its fullest. And it takes a while – Veronika finds a piano in a sitting room and remembers how much she wanted to be a pianist, but her parents and her lack of risk-taking turned her into a stable librarian instead. She first reconnects with her passion through music.

She also realizes that, while in an insane asylum, no one will give a second thought about her if she starts to act “crazy” – in other words, telling people what she thinks without filtering her thoughts, or acting out violently; those acts have no consequence, because she’s already been labeled “crazy” by her placement in the asylum.

And as she realizes that, she gets back in touch with her “true” self – the self unfettered by Society.

[Veronika] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian.

“I should have been crazier.” But, as it undoubtedly happens with some people, she had found this out too late.  [p. 94-95]

This quote resonates with me, because I too find myself wishing, occasionally, that I had been crazier growing up. But Society pressured me into playing Life extremely safe: my focus was entirely on being financially stable. I transferred to a state school because a) it was more affordable, and b) it offered a better education. In accounting. And now, ten years after graduation, I am finally using my degree and enjoying it – in a government job, the epitome of risk-averse. After all, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes.

And now, where I’m facing a future where I no longer need to assure my financial stability and can start working on a personal life, I don’t even know where to begin to break myself out of my shell. Because that, to me, would mean I would need to be ‘crazy.’ And I don’t know how.

ANYWAY, enough about me. In the end, Veronika falls in love with Eduard, another patient who only begins to speak after he and Veronika share a connection, and together they escape the asylum. Dr. Igor ends the novel with an entry in his diary where he admits that someday Veronika will eventually see another doctor, and that doctor will tell her that her heart is perfectly healthy; but until she does, she will treat every day as a miracle. Which, every day is, really.

In short, it’s not as depressing as the title makes it out to be, and if you like novels with a philosophical bent, you would probably appreciate this.

The movie, however, tells the story just as nicely, plus stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, and Professor Lupin plays Dr. Igor, so that’s nice too.

Grade for Veronika Decides to Die: 3 stars