Jack CBR5 #15, The Magician's Assistant, Anne Patchett

Much has been written exploring the theme that you can't ever know another person completely. Whether it be a result of secrets, misunderstanding, intentional subterfuge,  everyone keeps something back, some part of themselves. Often times, when people die, the parts of themselves we don't know come crashing down around us. This too, is pretty well-mined territory in terms of literary themes.

The Magician's Assistance begins when Parsifal, the magician, dies. Sabine, his assistant and wife, has been with him for 22 years. She knows everything about him....except she doesn't. When his will is read, Sabine learns that her oldest friend, partner, and husband has a family he lied about. They live in Nebraska, and they miss him. They have missed him for a very long time.


I don't think it's much of a spoiler, it comes out pretty early: Parsifal is gay. Not only that, he is in love with Phan. Sabine is their companion, and until Phan succumbs to AIDS, she is a bit of an outlier. A woman in love with a man who not only loves men, but one in particular. It's after Phan's death that Parsifal tells Sabine, "I want to make you my widow," and so the story begins. It's not Patchett's best storytelling ever, but with Patchett it doesn't ever have to be.  Sabine finds out there is a family about which she did not know, and when they ask to spend time with her, she acquiesces. The events that follow aren't unexpected.

The beauty of this novel is that it is a meditation on loneliness. I read a novel not to long ago where sadness was a drug and it came in a hundred different types: just lost my dog sad, my Dad just died sad, I just remembered what I can never have again sad. etc. etc.  This book is an exploration of loneliness in every single character. Is it lonelier to love someone who can't love you back? Or to lose the one you love because you don't know any better? Or to suffer through life with someone you don't love because you said you would? Is a mother without her child lonelier than an adult without his or her lover? Or is it harder to be the child of parents who adore each other when you've never developed that kind of attachment yourself? There are a hundred examinations of loneliness in this novel, and every one of them is compelling. And somehow Patchett makes you feel everyone one of them, even if that particular loneliness has not been one of yours.

This makes it sound like it is a wholly depressing book. It's not. However, the best moments are in the loneliness. Not only are they the best written, but they make the moments of connection, which might otherwise feel pedestrian, so much more palpable. That said, there are a few moments you wish weren't there, but they are more than made up for in the long run.

Jack CBR5 - Paint it Black, Janet Fitch

I loved White Oleander, Janet Fitch's first novel. It's the story of a young girl in foster care because her mother murdered a former lover. The pose are phenomenal, the story it tight, and the characters leap off the page. Her sophomore effort, Paint it Black, unfortunately, does not.

"Paint it Black" tells the story of 19-year-old protagonist, Josie Tyrell. Her life is pretty fucked, except she's in love with Michael, tortured artist and son of a famous pianist.  Unfortunately, Michael's offs himself. His suicide bring Josie and Michael's mother together and despite their differences and marred past, they find a common bond in being the only people who truly feel the void left at Michael's passing. This could have been a lot of things. Suicide leaves so much room for reflection, pain, anger, etc. Unfortunately the reader doesn't get most of those things. Instead the reader gets the same descriptive phrases repeated ad naseum from the first page to the last. A protagonist, who spends the better part of the book wandering around in an alcoholic stupor trying to figure out... well, it's not always clear what she's trying to figure out.

In the end, the repetition and the stupor may be intentional. A distraction from the lack of character development and lack of compelling story. There are still moments where Fitch exercises her prowess with the language, but in this novel they are too few and far between.

Jack CBR5 #13 - When it Happens to You, Molly freaking Ringwald

Who knew? Molly Ringwald's debut, "novel in short stories" was published by Harper Collins, last year I think. It's a story that centers around Greta and Phillip, parents to one daughter, and the demise of their relationship due to infidelity. There are peripheral characters as well. Greta's Mom, Phillip's brother, and the people with whom they begin new relationships. Each chapter moves the story a little further away from Greta and Phillip's specific struggle, but they are all part of the rippling effect of that event in the first few pages.

Ringwald isn't going to win a Pulitzer for this book, but she hasn't embarrassed herself either.  I don't need closure in stories or books, so that complaint that has been leveled at the novel didn't bother me. However, the other big complaint, that she spends more time telling you about the internal landscape of her characters than showing you anything real about them, is one with which I agree. It's not that the descriptions aren't compelling, it's just that they don't go anywhere. In fairness, that might also be because often times sadness and anger are immobilizing, but I found myself wanting to know more about what it looked like than what it felt like in places.

Ringwald is really good at Greta's anger and bitterness. Some of the lines she throws at her husband in the later stories, proof that she has not moved past the pain, are daggers. These moments seem very real. That after such disappointment and disloyalty, random anger would rear up displacing any short-lived peace experienced in a familial moment with your shared child.  The seething rage "like a sliver embedded deep beneath the flesh, jagged and inflammatory, impossible to extract." You can almost see Andie standing in the hallway tears in her eyes as she confronts Blane about the prom. Honestly that's not fair, but it can be hard to separate the two when you're reading.

CBR5 #12 - Intentional Dissonance, Iain Thomas

This book is hard to explain. There is only one city left on the Earth. Somewhere in the future things went wrong and now there is one city in the world. There are people trapped in teleporting loops living out the same 10 to 20 seconds of their lives over and over again on the street right in front of everyone. There are tree people and regular people with gifts, and the government pumps anti depressants into the water system to keep people from offing themselves. There is a black marker for the drug Saudade, which is sadness. There's every variety of sadness: just lost your dog sadness, lost a parent, remember your favorite thing that you'll never see or feel again, the list goes on.

Our protagonist, Jon Salt, is addicted to sadness. His friend, Emily, supplies him. John is in love with Michelle. Jon has a gift. He can make people see things, not any things, personal things. Whatever personally will affect them the way Jon wants them to be affected is what appears before them. He uses this gift to perform illegal "magic" shows to get by. He lives on the fringes, not totally understanding his gift, and spending most of his time in a melancholy stupor.

There is, of course, a bad guy. A Doctor who wants to use Jon's power to finish what he started when the world "ended". Most of the book centers around the chase. The Doctor in pursuit of John, in pursuit of more Saudade and Michelle. Eventually, it becomes evident that nothing is as it seems.

The story is interesting and offers a few surprises. the first 2/3 of the book move along and have some very haunting moments. The last third of the book struggles. It feels like the finish is rushed, and more is explained to get through the finish than shown. Moments that make for scenes in the early part of the book reduced to one-sentence explanation of how we got here. A little it reminded me of crime procedural on network TV, that stilted dialogue they use to explain all the events in case the viewer missed anything.

I took a writing workshop with a woman many years ago, and her first comment with almost every piece was, "I wish this would have ended sooner". Me too.

CBR5 - #11 Greyhound, Steffan Piper

When I was 18, I moved from the desert to the Mid-West to attend college. I had never experienced a small town (my best friend and roommate grew up in a town of 1200), funnel cakes, or winter. It was quite a transition. My first Christmas break, I had a plane ticket to fly home for two weeks and the day before it started snowing in earnest.  My ticket was out of KC and I was 2 hours away.  The solution was a Greyhound ride from Columbia to KC. It was the longest 3 hours of my life. I had one giant bag, a portable CD player (I'm old,) and a few books. I took a seat in the second to the last row. I was two rows behind a man sitting with a knife in his lap, and one row in front of a guy who kept trying to pet my hair. It's a long story, but in the end I survived. I have never been on a Greyhound since, and god willing...

Greyhound, is about an 11 year old boy with a lousy Mother. A Mother so lousy, that when she meets a man who doesn't like her son, she puts him on a greyhound to go to his grandmother. It's a long trip. A California to Pennsylvania long trip. The story focuses on the little boy, Sebastian, as he makes his way across the country. He's 11 years old, stutters, and has $35 to last him for his 3 1/2 day bus ride. Oh, and he has a secret.

Sebastian boards the first bus and takes his seat at the back of the bus alone; however, he isn't alone for long. At the first or second major stop, Marcus, an African American man in his early 30 boards the bus and takes the other side of Sebastian's seat. Marcus is headed to NY to see his family after a long time away.  Marcus is wise and takes an interest in Sebastian. It's something like paternal, but not exactly, which is important because it forces Sebastian to work a lot out for himself. It's impossible not to see similarities with Huck Finn, but once you get passed them it's a great coming of age story all it's own.

I will say, a lot happens in three days on this bus. I mean really a lot. It keeps the ride interesting, but might not have even been that necessary. The relationship between Marcus and Sebastian is compelling enough. Piper does a great job of getting in Sebastian's head and showing the reader how he processes his surroundings. How Marcus's words impact him. And Marcus, he is the rare adult that knows when to be quiet with a child. He doesn't conclude things for Sebastian, he lets him find his own conclusions. Maybe because Sebastian isn't his own son, maybe not. The only really distracting thing about the book for me was Sebastian's voice waivers a little. The story is told from retrospect and so a certain understanding of the events from Sebastian's older view point is expected; however it seems some memories are very immediate and feel like his 11 year old self experiencing them, while others are clearly retold from the older, wise, perspective. It muddies Sebastian's characterization in some places. Overall, it's a good book.

CBR5 #10 - Clean Break, David Matthew Klien

In grad school, I dated a guy for about five months. It was a very intense 5 months with lots of road trips, live music, drugs etc. It was a lot of fun until one day it just wasn't. I was driving home from school, and realized it was done. I don't know why, I just didn't want to do any of it anymore. So I drove home where he was waiting for me, and told him our short-lived relationship was over. He protested a little and left. On the phone the next day, my best friend said something about how I was always so surgical at the end of a relationship, one cut and then over. No discussion, no remorse. There was some truth to that in terms of approach, but it almost ended up that way in the long run. In this case, said ex-boyfriend started stalking me and I ended up moving across town a few weeks later after he broke into my house for the second time and threatened by dog. Apparently surgical wasn't okay with him.

Clean Break centers on this very idea. Do we ever get a clean break? Can you sever a relationship, walk away relatively unscathed, and move on? Well this I can assure you, you are less likely to if you have a kid and your ex is a struggling gambling addict. In this story, Celeste, has been a stay at home mom to her son Spenser, for his entire life. She is married to Adam, an almost professional athlete,  who is being released from rehab for his gambling addiction again this week. The difference this time is that she's moved out.

The novel centers on the first several months Adam is out and how Celeste deals with him: the negotiating of his recovery, the impending divorce, her new love interest, and the care of her young son. The first two acts are compelling, although I felt like I got less insight into addiction than other reviewers have suggested. This book demonstrates how easy it is to relapse, and of course, Adam thinks a lot about gambling, but beyond that I didn't feel that affected by Adam's character. He seemed a little ridiculous...although maybe that is the point.

The story, for me, unravels in the final act. I think in our culture today there is too much to suggest that regular folks are capable of extreme acts. That humans can rationalize to much too easily and just move on. I don't buy it. I think the end is a departure from character for the lead, and a too-easy clean up of what is a realistically fucked up situation. Not to say it wasn't enjoyable, I just found myself at the end thinking "really?"

CBR5 #9 - every you, every me, David Levithan

About this time last year, I went on a trip with a very long plane ride. So long that the Valium only knocked me out for the first half. Because my sister could not stop talking about it, I had loaded the Mockingjay series on my Kindle and read the whole thing across two flights. Anyway, all that is explanation for the fact that my Kindle continues to suggest YA titles to me to this day. Most of the time I don't realize they are YA until I'm half way through them, so I guess it's pretty good YA titles it's suggesting. One of the authors I've discovered as a result is David Levithan. I ready every day a few months ago and now I just finished every you, every me.

The book was an experiment between he and a friend. The friend, a photographer, gave Levithan a different picture each week, or month - I can't recall - and David would write the story around the picture. He had no idea what he would get each week, and the friend didn't see anything he had written until he had a full draft. My best friend and I tried to do a similar things a few years ago, she would send me sketches or paintings and I would write something for it and then we would reverse it. We failed miserably mostly because we only exchanged materials twice. But it was a ton of fun and I'm about to call her and get it started up again.

The story that Levithan constructs around the pictures is fantastic. A boy, Evan, has lost a very important friend. That much is clear from the outset. He is also very, very sad and confused. The narrative is told from his perspective, and so dances around in his thought processes. Much of the text is written in strikethrough, which is the thoughts he tries to censor from his consciousness, or sometimes the things he wishes he could say but doesn't in a conversation. It's a brilliant way to demonstrate all the noise in this teenagers head. And there is a lot of noise. His absent best friend weighs heavily on him and his only confidant is her also hurting boyfriend, Jack. When the pictures start coming Evan and Jack are first drawn together to solve the mystery of who's sending them, and then torn apart by the same mystery. It's in the tearing that the story is strongest.

Anyone who has ever lost someone they really loved, whether they passed on or moved on, knows how deeply personal that emptiness feels. I think it's one of the few things that doesn't wane with age, loss like that is just as acute as an adult as it is for a teenager. In every you, every me, Evan's sense of loss is so acute that he struggles to get through regular day - to - day activities. Then the photos start appearing and the harder Evan tries to find out who sent him the photos, the more he learns about Ariel, his missing friend. It becomes apparent that Evan didn't know everything about her, because how could he? When Jack gets angry and tells Evan about the bad days with Ariel, Evan struggles to process this version of his friend. When they find pictures of her with people they don't know, they both have to reconsider what they thought they knew about Ariel. This revelation is especially hard for Evan, but eventually he realizes it means he's not totally alone. He feels his loss as only he can, but others are feeling it too. The same but different, for an Ariel that is the same, but different.