TFW Your Jewelry is CURSED: The Amulet by Michael McDowell

Meet The Amulet, the most travelin’ piece of jewelry around. It passes from heir to heir to heir and when it clasps  around your neck, you find yourself with an unquenchable thirst to kill. The only catch (though the catch on the necklace is invisible and unbreakable) is once you kill, your turn comes shortly and gruesomely thereafter.

It saves the taxpayers quite a bit on trials and such.

Continue reading “TFW Your Jewelry is CURSED: The Amulet by Michael McDowell”

A Werewolf’s Purpose: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon

“What is the lycanthrope, in the eye of God?”

I don’t have much experience with werewolf literature. The unfortunate examples of recent memory extends to the lame The Wolfen by Whitley Streiber and the even lamer portrayal in Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight series. Much of recent werewolf material relegates the werewolf to sidekick/nemesis status, markedly inferior to their (usually) vampire frenemies (True Blood, Underworld.) 

Continue reading “A Werewolf’s Purpose: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon”

I’m So Poor I Can’t Even Pay Attention: Memory, Mind Palaces, and the Hellmouth in My Basement

One of the more incredible aspects of my reading journey is how I’m always finding links between the books I read. Whether I consciously choose my next book based on triggers from a book I just finished, or whether I sometimes stretch a little to make the associations, there’s always a thread of continuity from one book to the next, and suddenly the map of the books I read blossom like a web of interconnectivity in my mind.

I’ll begin the last book I finished, Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Nominally the story of a journalist who decided to delve into the arcane subculture of memory championships, where participants memorize decks of cards, unknown poems, and strings of numbers all for the sake of challenging the memory and the dubious honor of the title “memory champion.”

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The book delves into not only the history of the tradition of memorization, prized in a time when books were scrolls and the printing press was still a distant future invention, but the function and creation of memory, the savants who memorize entire phone books and those who, due to brain damage, are incapable of creating new memories.

The book does not delve deeply into any of these subjects, but functions as a tour of the many, many different aspects of memory. There’s declarative and non-declarative, semantic and episodic, verbal and visual types of memory, working memory (where did I put my glasses?) and long-term memory.

The most fascinating aspect is method by which memory champs employ their immense skills of remembering: the memory palace. Coined in an apocryphal story about Simonides, the mind palace is a place or route, real or imagined, that exists in your mind for the purpose of creating a spatial architecture where you can deposit the things you wish to remember (grocery lists, the presidents of the United States, the complete works of Charlaine Harris) and then “remember” them by taking a journey through the space.

Your memory palace can be a simple as your childhood home, as complex as an entire town, or completely imaginary.

The reason this method is so effectively is simply that our brains evolved to process and remember spatial information much more effectively than verbal information. Language has only existed the last 10,000 years or so; the earth much, much longer.

The creation of these mental maps, while ingrained in our DNA, is made difficult by a world in which constant stimulation, hyper-multitasking, and information overload is the order of the day. In trying to process and remember everything, we end up retaining very little. It’s easy to watch 24 straight hours of youtube videos and awake from our fugue with several empty doritos bags and absolutely no memory of what we watched.

The irony of being a spatially savvy species, for me, is that I have struggled for my whole life with navigation, finding myself easily lost in cities and zombie-infested wastelands alike. The advent of GPS only further handicapped my navigational skills, to the extent that the only places I can reliably navigate are work, the grocery store, my mom’s house, and the dog park.

To help ameliorate my lack of skill, I read The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs by Tristan Gooley, which is full of little tips that one can use to help navigate, mostly in nature, but also in cities and all the in-betweens.

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While I now know how to find the North Star and can estimate the length of time to sundown using my knuckles, the biggest takeaway is simply this: slow down and look around you. Look at which side of the tree the moss is growing on, notice which direction the wind is coming from. Look at the sky. Look at the ground. Stop for just a second and appreciate the present moment. Listen to the birds.

How does this jive with memory palaces and remembering your grocery list? Because when we notice the world around us,then every walk we take becomes a potential memory palace, a space that we can snatch from the physical world and implant in our minds, places we can fill with Civil War generals or Pixar films or every World Series winner or whatever we’d like.

I decided to test out this memory palace thing with all of the books I’ve read this year, 67 so far. I took a house that I lived in for a few years, large enough to accommodate at least 100 (my reading goal) and began in the basement. I not only tossed objects around, but created a storyline that included everything from a possessed Christmas ornament to a possessed tree, incorporating real life props like that creepy old chest in the basement and the moment when I learned that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. Because so many of the books I read are horror books, the whole experience was genuinely creepy at times.

But did it work?

Yes, yes it worked, and the ridiculous story I created as I traveled around my old house and fled the apparent hellmouth in the basement was a little difficult and a lot of fun.

Woman No. 17 Hitting the Thematic Checklist

Sitting in a tire shop is not my ideal Sunday morning; I wasn’t the only patron to bring a book, and though I surreptitiously tried to suss out what the other ladies were reading without looking like a creeper, I only ended up looking like a creeper.

While the tech replaced my tire, I was able to finish Woman No. 17 by Edan Lapucki. The blurb on the cover describes the novel as “sinister and sexy” (which is weirdly also my Tinder profile.) And like my Tinder profile, it doesn’t really live up to the hype.

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The story presents the dual viewpoints of a well-off woman and her nanny, the women a generation apart, both preoccupied with their roles in the world as well as their mothers. In addition to the classic “my mother was a psycho omg am i my mother” conundrum, there is also an artsy slant that questions identities and whether we can put them on and take them off like clothes and at what point our assumed identities become part of us (see: Masks All the Way Down.)

There are so many Liberal Arts Intro Class themes that the novel tries to explore, the reader is in danger of a slipped disk from all the whiplash.

IN ADDITION TO THE ABOVE MENTIONED THEMES: the role of art in the world. A classic “am I an artist?” crisis.

IN ADDITION: a nonverbal son and how we treat the disabled as less than.

IN ADDITION: Approximately eight million flawed or straight up sociopathic woman. Cue Gone Girl/The Girl on the Train comparisons.

IN ADDITION: Representation of the female body on film as exploitative or powerful, dependent on the lens. Cue a really terrible art project that serves to upend the male gaze with dick pics. Subversive!

IN ADDITION: Poverty porn.

The story is compelling, the train wreck of these woman’s lives compulsively readable as they make poor choice after disastrous decision. If the novel hadn’t tried to capture so many different liberal arts elective course titles, the whole story would have felt more unified and might have led to a more satisfying ending.

*WOMEN NOS. 1-16

  • One pertinent lesson of this novel is to not let your mom use twitter. There’s actually a wide array of social media usage in this novel, including Snapchat and Craigslist. Regardless of the app, the characters in this novel manage to create disaster with every post and tweet and email they send into the world.
  • Just add booze? In my blog about Dead in the Water I complained about the lazy character shortcut of making a character a pedophile in order to telegraph to the reader just how evil the character is. Equally annoying is making a woman a boozer to depict how broken she is. Just add booze! Insta-flaw! I know this was used prominently (and as a plot propellant) in The Girl on the Train. Has it become more prevalent, or am I just noticing it more?

 

Cut the Chit-Chat and Get the F Out!: Ararat by Christopher Golden

The title of this blog post paraphrases a line spoken by a character late in Christopher Golden’s novel, Ararat. It also accurately describes the experience of reading the novel (or listening, as I did) and suffering through long passages of pointless arguing amongst a group of people trapped together in a most improbable situation: Inside Noah’s Ark high up on Mount Ararat.

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See what happened was…there was an earthquake and an avalanche, which opened up a cavern in the side of Mount Ararat. The cavern turns out to be the interior of an ancient ship, and soon a large cast of characters, including a pair of fame-seeking adventurers, a priest, a covert operative, a documentarian, a UN representative, local Turks and guides, a professor and a host of grad students, phew…are holed up inside the ship. Their main object of interest is a certain cadaver which appears to be something other than human.

*mild to moderate spoilers*

And in case you’re not attuned to the finer points of Demons 101, the cadaver helpfully has horns. Like demons do.

Soon, all the members of the crew are acting a little odd and there are long stretches of pointless infighting, bizarre dreams, and grade-school musings on belief and religion. Even when they get stuck in a gruesome version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, they still find time to argue and grouse in between horrific murders. As the demon plays a round of Possession Russian Roulette with the survivors, there are some nonsensical (and unecessary) plot machinations to explain what seems inherently unexplainable.

In service of blood, gore, and arguing, some of the story’s more interesting elements are sold short. For example, the characters ask why the ship is so high on the mountain, but never revisit it or even posit a theory. Sure, if we want to go with the classic story, it was a flood, and if it was a flood, what kind of implications did that have worldwide? Who were these people and what were they running from? And most importantly, why in the hell did they take a damn demon with them?

Another shaky element detracting from the strength of the story is the tepidly described setting. It’s a mountain. It has snow. Blizzards. An ancient ark. The setting is a character itself, but at times remains as one-dimensional as some of its human counterparts.

This is a book ripe for film adaptation. The setting is wonderfully claustrophobic, an ancient rotting ship in the side of a mountain, a blizzard raging outside, the natural tension of a multinational cooperation exacerbated by a little demonic influence. Cut out some of the sniping and get to the action and we could have a serviceable film.

* “Then as God had bid him to do/ he took on animals two by two” (this poem!)

  • Christopher Golden’s novel Snowblind is in talks to become a TV series sometime in the future. Pretty decent novel with some silly shenanigans at the end.
  • The “Rosemary’s Baby” vibe at the end of the novel almost redeems everything that came before it
  • I don’t understand why demons have to adhere to certain mortal rules, such as holy water or Latin. If they operate on a different metaphysical plane than humans, why should they be subject to our language or physical objects like crucifixes? I mean, they can possess us and make our heads spin around!

 

This is how it will be when you drown: Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder

This is how it will be when you drown. – Dead in the Water by Nancy Holder

If you ever come across a copy of Nancy Holder’s Dead in the Water, published in 1995 and winner of the Bram Stoker Award, pick it up and read the first chapter. It contains phenomenal, graphic description of drowning far from the romantic auspices of classical literature.

 

Ophelia’s Drowning Fail

 

When Holder writes “You turn around to see your friends again. And they’re farther away than you thought they’d be. A lot farther,” it’s evocative of Stevie Smith’s 1957 poem “Not Waving But Drowning.” The choice of second person POV lends the chapter it’s power, effectively removing away the narrative screen between the reader and the action. It’s not some random unnamed character who’s drowning. It’s you. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the novel never comes close to evoking that emotional punch.

It’s a great setup: A group of castaways are picked up by a luxury cruise ship when their own doomed freighter sinks on its way to Hawaii. Unsubtly named The Pandora, the ship and its eye-patched captain are not what they seem. Could it be they are on a ship where all the evils of the world are percolating below its shimmering, mirage-like exterior?

Like the ship itself, the novel is an incoherent jumble of dreams, hallucinations, images, graphic violence, and characters perpetually feeling sorry for themselves. Throw in Lorelei the water spirit, excessive quoting from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and an insidious fog (because when is fog ever benign?) and the novel ends up more confusing than compelling, verbose but hardly visionary.

  • Reading Pet Peeve Alert: Lazy uses of classical myths to evoke (incorrectly) an association. Pandora was a woman whose curiosity caused her to accidentally unleash evil on the world. I don’t see how that corresponds with a murderous ghost-captain who sinks ships and enslaves the souls of the drowned in service to him. For a correct usage of this myth, please refer to The Girl with all the Gifts.
  • Reading Pet Peeve Alert Part II: Throwing in pedophilia to grant a character automatic “evil” status. The character was nasty enough; I don’t get why we need to read about that. It’s repellent.
  • Lady cop alert! How quaint that the blurb on the back of the book has to point out that the novel contains a “female cop packing a .38″ Emphasis mine. I know that may cause some readers to quake in their trousers, but don’t worry, she has a dickish, misogynist partner to balance out her offensive possession of ovaries. Who of course she’s in love with. It’s like The Wolfen on a boat!

 

The Future Will Be…WET: New York 2140 and American War

Two new releases came out this month along a similar motif: Climate Change!

That’s right! The liberal bogeyman in the closet! The biggest lie since Al Gore said he invented the internet!

I’m just kidding. Anyone who thinks climate change is a hoax, I have a Hummer I’d like to sell you.

NEW YORK 2140 By Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s a capital “M” Message in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 that is worthy and frightening. If we continue to abuse our planet, we will pay the consequences. Those consequences are wide-ranging, from the destruction of habitats and species, shrinking coastlines, an ever widening gap between the classes, housing crises, to devastating ecological events that turn the streets of New York City into canals.

Robinson creates an astonishing vision of the future, excessively detailed, smart, complicated and imaginative. Though the POV doesn’t veer often from NYC, the glimpses outside of the city provide tantalizing possibilities of the way the world has changed just one disastrous century hence.

But all too often, the action is focused on NYC, and the canals and stranded skyscrapers and sky bridges grow a little stale after the hundredth visitation. The “Plot” (and I use that term loosely) focuses on a cast of characters living in the former MetLife building. Characters that are by-the-book carbon copy archetypes: the ambitious woman, the douchey finance bro, the impish street kids, the wise yet doddering old man, the grouchy Slavic building super…et al.

The very real possibility of Robinson’s ecological future is undermined by goofy, pie-in-the-sky plot machinations like a people’s revolution that brings down the existing financial system, a treasure hunt, a polar bear transport gone awry, a hurricane, a mysterious kidnapping, and nefarious private security firms. It’s a veritable kitchen sink of plot ideas with no editor in sight. Further bloating the text are an endless stream of quotations and list that, in the audiobook, has its own narrator!

The book reads almost like a pitch for a TV series, and would probably make a good own, as TV creators are often adept at enlargin a novel’s given universe and elaborating on character development (though not always *cough* Walking Dead.)

AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

In a slightly less distant future, author Omar El Akkad imagines one that is equally devastated by climate change, such that the southeast borders of the U.S. have moved drastically inland, while the shrinking East and West coastlines have sent scores of displaced citizens fleeing towards the Midwest. This leads the government to ban fossil fuels, resulting in a rift that starts the second American Civil War.

In contrast to New York 2140, the novel charts the life of one little girl living far south in the Louisiana swamp and her genesis towards adulthood and the fate of a nation. The narrative is occasionally interrupted by context-setting excerpts from memoirs, reports, and history books. This provides a nice balance that heightens the plot tension as it barrels towards its tragic, inevitable conclusion.

There is a fascinating parallel between this “American War” and the wars America has fought overseas. The North is the dominating status quo, viewing the dissident Southerners as backwards hicks. The Southerners wage their war with guerilla tactics, strapping on “farmer’s suits,” fertilizer-fueled bombs and martyring themselves for the Southern cause. They set mines and ambush transports.

But they are no more unequivocal enemies than the North is righteous. The North engages in brutal interrogation techniques, suspending human rights as a wartime necessity. The detainees suffer cruelties that include sensory assault and waterboarding.

American War doesn’t waste subtleties on drawing these distinctions. Taking the war to our own backyard is a sobering shift in perspective.

***

Both books are set against the backdrop of climate change and the way it will drastically change how humans live. It will drown cities, start wars, spread disease, widen the economic divide, and extinguish species.

It’s hard to believe that in 2017 we’re still equivocating over whether or not climate change even exists, all the while ensuring a shittier future for every living thing on this planet.

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