April: Cruelest month, can confirm

I’m a bit late with this month’s update but I have two very good excuses. 1.) For the past month, I’ve been burning it at both ends trying to prepare my A.P. Language and Composition students for the AP Exam (which they all took yesterday and reported that they felt prepared, thank god) and 2.) I thought the world was ending and I wouldn’t survive to write this entry anyway.

You think I’m joking but I’m telling you, when it snows 18″ during the weekend you’d normally be cleaning out the garden or taking the roadbike out for her first ride around Lake of the Isles, it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were witnessing the first signs of the apocalypse. We had two snowdays in April, for god’s sake! So it was fitting that I started the month with the Norse myth of the inevitable endtimes that will come to claim all the gods, no matter how powerful or clever.

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Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

In a Season 2 episode of Mad Men, a potential paramour tells Betty Draper (who was then still married to the philandering narcissist and series antihero, Don Draper), “you’re so profoundly sad”. To which she replies, “No. It’s just that my people are Nordic”. I loved that line because I could so easily relate (and because I loved everything about Betty). Life is a long, drawn-out tragedy that ends the same for everyone, even gods. That is the fateful arc of Neil Gaiman’s delightful retelling of the legends of Asgard, some of whom will be familiar to modern audiences (Loki’s children Hel and Fenrir appear as villains in Marvel comics and films), and many whose stories have been all but lost to history. Derived from a collection of Medieval Icelandic texts known as the Prose Edda, Norse Mythology includes what you might expect from creation stories that describe the first god Buri (grandfather of Odin) emerging from a salt block thanks to the vigorous licking of a cosmic cow called Audhumbla.  But Gaiman’s storytelling signature is also all over this collection, especially the snappy dialogue and punchy rejoinders (in my favorite exchange, Freya turns to Loki, whose scheming has just resulted in her engagement to a cruel, clumsy giant, and says simply, “I hate you so much”) that lend even minor characters distinct personalities. His wry humor always highlights that, despite their awesome power and potential to make their world a paradise for all living things, the gods are all petty and selfish. It is their tragic flaw, and what will spell their ultimate demise when Ragnarok, the endtimes, are upon them and Fenrir, the wolf-son of Loki whom the gods betrayed, will break free of his bonds and destroy everything in his path. This certainty – that the end is coming and everyone will die and there is nothing you can do to prevent it – lends a sense of foreboding to all of the tales in Norse Mythology. Gaiman begins the collection with an invitation to read the stories and share them, pass them on and keep the oral tradition alive, and I couldn’t help thinking as I read that these stories – funny and entertaining but also dark and portentous – are perfect for just that setting.

thehumansThe Humans by Matt Haig

My friend Holly has been recommending this book to me for months and I’m so glad I finally took her up on it. The imaginative premise of The Humans is that one of them, a Cambridge professor named Andrew Martin, has just discovered the secret of prime numbers, a breakthrough that will unlock all the mysteries of the universe and propel humanity far beyond its mortal limits, even death. Catching wind of this discovery, members of an alien race from the planet Vonnadoria (certainly a nod to Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse-Five) decide that humans are far too selfish, shortsighted, and violent to be trusted with such knowledge and dispatch one of their kind to prevent anyone else from finding out. The chosen Vonnadorian inhabits the body of Andrew Martin and slips into his life so easily that Martin’s wife and son barely notice their husband/father is gone. The alien’s mission is to eradicate any trace of Martin’s discovery, by any means necessary – including killing anyone with whom he might have shared even the slightest hint of what he’d uncovered. But as his observations of humanity shift from cold dismissal to puzzled affection to a fierce instinct to protect, the Vonnadorian decides maybe they don’t deserve to die. Maybe humans have got something figured out that the technologically advanced Vonnadorians, in all their evolutionary superiority, can’t comprehend. That this secret is love probably won’t surprise anyone, nor will the 97-item list of platitudes the Vonnadorian/Andrew/Dad eventually leaves with his human host’s son. Yeah, the ending is a bit cheesy, but the ride to that point is so entertaining, funny, and spot-on in its insight into human behavior from the perspective of an outsider that the schmalz is easily forgiven.

 

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My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good demon possession. I attribute this to the fact that I saw The Exorcist at precisely the same age Regan was in the film and didn’t think for a moment that it couldn’t happen to me. This was of course during the 80’s, when, if Dateline and 20/20 et al. were to be believed, Satanism was sweeping the nation. Suffice it to say, the film had a profound effect on me and was the source of my greatest fears until well into my teens. Lately I can’t get the idea of possession and exorcism out of my head and have even started writing a YA novel about a couple of teenage girls who begin to notice something strange happening to the boys at their school… but that’s another story. This story, about a group of best friends navigating the typical high school parade of dumb boys and clueless authority figures as they just try to make the most of the freedom and glory of their brief youth, would be rich and rewarding even without the exorcism (and wonderfully chilling and gory possession that necessitates it) promised by the title. Hendrix achieves something truly brilliant in his highly engaging novel. Most impressive is the way he managed to capture the tight and passionate bond between girlfriends at multiple stages of their lives, beginning with the story of how Abby (the novel’s protagonist) and Gretchen (the would-be demon victim) become friends at Abby’s E.T.-themed 10th birthday party. Because the class rich snob invited everyone for a day of horseback riding at her family’s ranch on the same day, Gretchen is the only person to attend Abby’s party, basically guaranteeing that the girls will be best friends forever. That friendship is seriously tested during the girls’ senior year, when something happens to Gretchen at a party (Abby witnesses it but never fully understands what she saw) and everything changes. What follows is a brave, badass girl’s thrilling quest to save her best friend, no matter the cost to her reputation, safety, or future. It’s campy, creepy horror and coming-of-age revelation ingeniously woven into a terrific story of the deep and profound love and loyalty of teenage friendship. As an added bonus, Hendrix threads the needle of genuine 80’s nostalgia that doesn’t come across as ironic or self-aware, a particular peeve of mine. It’s just damn good storytelling and easily wins the Best Book of the Month award.

 

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

If you haven’t heard of this book or the Golden State Killer at this point, I hope you’ve enjoyed your Thoreau-esque sabbatical from all social and news media. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark was already a big deal when it was published in February because its author, Michelle McNamara, died suddenly at age 46 of an undiagnosed heart condition last April, before she’d had a chance to complete it. Her husband, the comedian and actor Patton Oswalt, collaborated with two of her colleagues to finish it, and it quickly became a #1 New York Times Bestseller, as well as the subject of a forthcoming HBO documentary series. But THEN just a few weeks ago, the Sacramento police department arrested the the man who terrorized California neighborhoods during the 70’s and 80’s, an ex-cop named Joseph James DeAngelo – the Golden State Killer. But don’t think that because you’ve read the news stories about the case that you needn’t bother with the book. One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer reads the subtitle, and herein lies the brilliance and originality of McNamara’s work. It’s two stories, really. It is a chilling, extensively researched chronicle of the increasingly violent serial assaults, rapes, and murders committed by the man known first as the East Area Rapist, then the Original Night Stalker (McNamara gave him the moniker “Golden State Killer”). It is also the story of McNamara herself. The unsolved murder of a teenage girl in her hometown when McNamara was only 14 set her on a trajectory of dogged investigation and crime writing. For years she wrote a popular blog, True Crime Diary, that featured (and tried to solve) cold cases. Using her network of fellow citizen detectives, McNamara followed every possible lead, scoured neighborhoods, and relentlessly tracked down retired cops and detectives to find out what they knew, what they suspected, and what they could have missed. Coupled with the truly frightening details of the home invasions and murders (is there anything scarier to imagine as you’re lying in bed in the dark?), McNamara’s persistence is what makes the book such a compelling read. I think it took me all of one weekend to finish it. Every so often the story will be interrupted with an editor’s note, something to the effect of: “the following section has been reconstructed from Michelle’s notes” and each time I came across such a note, my heart sank as I remembered that she’s gone. It’s such a loss and this book is a triumph.

 

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Inconceivable by Julia Indichova

I read this book, as well as the one that follows, for a memoir-with-book-reviews piece I wrote on infertility for National Infertility Awareness Week last month. In case you didn’t know, I have infertility. I’ve only recently begun to open up about it, however, and used that piece as my sort of coming-out. I’d been reluctant to dive into the world of infertility books because they all seemed geared toward finding the perfect combination of treatments that will lead to a successful pregnancy. I’m quite averse to the medical interventions available to us – honestly, I’m just too cynical to think they’d actually work or to invest tens out thousands and god knows how much emotional stress in the attempt. I am, however, a bit more open to a more natural approach.  Listening to what your body needs and making lifestyle changes that create the ideal conditions for a baby to grow and develop is the premise of Julia Indichova’s Inconceivable: A Woman’s Triumph over Despair and Statistics. After having had one child, she and her husband struggled to conceive again, a condition known as secondary infertility. Her memoir describes how they try everything, bouncing from one medical specialist and nontraditional healer to the next in a fruitless attempt to achieve the perfect hormonal balance required to conceive. Finally, Indichova decides to listen to the wisdom of her own body and embarks on a mind-body-spirit journey that eventually leads to a successful pregnancy. I found the honesty and simplicity with which Indichova shared her story both refreshing and comforting. It gave me hope to read about a woman whose chances of conception at the time of her diagnosis had been much slimmer. I was ultimately very happy for Julia and her family, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to switch to an all-vegetarian, no-caffeine, no-wine diet. Still, her story offers a welcome option that relies more on intuition and the wisdom of the ages than unpronounceable procedures and dizzyingly expensive injectable hormones, which I appreciated.

 

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How to Make Love to a Plastic Cup by Greg Wolfe

I have to admit, the main reason I picked up How to Make Love to a Plastic Cup was the funny title. I also thought it might be enlightening to read a man’s perspective on the confusing journey my husband Jeff and I had been navigating pretty much alone. Greg Wolfe and his wife Julie tried all the same interventions we did, except they went the extra yard into IVF, which we flirted with last winter. I thought I’d be reading a memoir, that there would be some examination of the changes in Greg and Julie’s relationship and how they weathered them together, or some reflection on how the process affected him mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Instead, this book reads like a “What to Expect” advice book. I was put off by his constant use of metaphor (a woman’s body is a car… or a bank… or a golf course; the miracle of conception is the Allied invasion of Normandy) and by the way he talked to his audience as though they were assholes, morons, and grown-man-babies. Also, and this is fairly minor, but it drove me crazy – whenever he talked about “your (hypothetical) doctor”, he always, 100% of the time, used the masculine pronoun. UGH. What I did appreciate was the thorough description of the IVF process, from the daily hormone injections to the egg retrieval and fertilization, to the implantation and agonizing 2-week waiting period. How to Make Love to a Plastic Cup was the clearest and most straightforward explanation I’ve seen of the practical concerns of IVF – including the financial considerations. That’s one of the main reasons Jeff and I ultimately decided not to pursue that option. For anyone just getting started in the process, however, the book might be a useful source of straightforward advice, as long as you can get past Wolfe’s annoying, self-conscious, alway trying to be funny tone. I couldn’t and honestly only finished it because I wanted to give it a fair review.
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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

Because I live in Minnesota, where we nurture an almost divine reverence for Lake Superior (obviously the Greatest of the Great Lakes), I savored every thoroughly researched detail of April’s Now Read This Book Club title. In The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, journalist Dan Egan provides a complex and sharply written portrait of the history of North America’s Great Lakes. These interconnected bodies of water, which comprise the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth, have been more or less under attack for decades, ever since manmade interventions like the completion of the Erie Canal and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway have attempted to turn the lakes into a lucrative shipping port, a third coast. This is a story about unintended consequences. As Egan describes how one generation of invasive species made way for the next, it becomes clear that the right combination of foresight and political will could have prevented the damage at every turn. Reading this book, I kept hoping for some glimmer of hope that we might learn from history and finally take steps to restore the health of these lakes, which are such a crucial source of freshwater at a time when that precious resource grows more finite by the day. Egan’s consistent focus on the financial costs and threats to human health posed by the decline of the lakes makes his solution (closing the seaway to overseas freighters that carry contaminants in their bilge-water tanks) seem all the more practical and logical. But that, and other actions that could be taken to save the lakes, would require significantly more regulation and oversight by the E.P.A. and federal legislation – something that doesn’t seem likely to happen in the current political climate. One of the more memorable things I learned from reading this book is that, perhaps counterintuitively, clear water is not a sign of a healthy lake. Restoring the ecology of the lakes so that they might survive and thrive requires leaders willing to understand and appreciate nature’s complexity.

 

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The Wishing Spell (The Land of Stories Book 1) by Chris Colfer

I read this book because my 9-year-old niece Stella said it was one of her favorites. We went to Denver last month to celebrate her birthday and she got the fourth book in this series as a gift from her grandma (I gave her a boxed set of Ramona Quimby books). She was shocked I hadn’t heard of these books and insisted I borrow books 1-3 so I could catch up with her. The Wishing Spell introduces the series’ protagonists, 12-year-old twins Alex and Connor, who accidentally fall into the big storybook entrusted to them by their grandmother and find themselves in a fantasy world. Colfer, probably best known for playing Kurt Hummel on Glee, unapologetically borrows from icons of the genre (Alex enthuses to her brother about having a “Mr. Tumnus Moment” with a friendly frog-man) and capitalizes on the fairy tale crossover/update trend in YA lit. To get back home, the twins have to collect a series of items described in a cryptic (to an 8-year-old) poem so that they can perform a Wishing Spell which will grant them anything they ask. But the Evil Queen (Snow White’s stepmother) is on her own mission to collect the items first. The twins’ journey features encounters with all the Brothers Grimm major players and I could easily tell why my niece likes these books so much. The chapters are nicely contained and quick-reading, making it perfect for kids who’ve recently begun to read chapter books independently. With a Lexile score of 720 (grades 3-6), the appropriate age will probably depend upon interest in the subject matter. As far as my interest goes, I’m probably good with stopping at one, but I applaud Colfer for creating a world so engaging for younger readers. Next stop, Narnia.

Thanks for stopping by! Remember, I’m always open to recommendations so if you’ve got a favorite you’d like to see reviewed, please don’t hesitate to drop it in a comment or email. Very special thanks to Ms. Estelle Beatrice Den Otter for this month’s lovely cover art. I think it may have been her first commission (and possibly the easiest $10 she’s ever made).

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