Friday, January 29, 2016

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness”

When I was in graduate school, my friend Yumi was hit by a car and killed. The school newspaper published a rather crass photo of her backpack, spilled open to reveal linguistics textbooks and a small silver tea thermos.  Before the funeral, I tried to memorize an expression of sympathy in Japanese to tell her sister, but she was too sad and I too shy to say anything after all.

Death at 22 is shocking. When I set out to read The Opposite of Loneliness, I had no idea that the author, Marina Keegan, died in a car crash just days after graduating from Yale. Normally, I skip the introduction, but seeing that its author was Anne Fadiman (the mystery author I tried to recall months ago when my books were in storage), I gamely plunged in only to realize the book I held was even more poignant than the title promised.

Keegan's essays collected in this book describe an emotional attachment to a first car, her struggle with Celiac disease before gluten-free was trendy, a portrait of an exterminator, and her final piece published in the Yale Daily News about her fears of leaving the safety of dorm rooms and libraries. Even though the challenge of this book was to read a collection of essays, I was drawn more to her fiction pieces. Keegan takes familiar emotions, jealousy, regret, and centers them in situations that are relatable but unique.  Claire has to say something at the funeral of the boy she was sort of dating. Addie comes home for winter break and must divide her time between her family and a serious boyfriend. Karen at 62 is embarrassed to explain a tattoo she got when she was 19.

Although this first read of her work was colored by shock and an over-attentiveness to details relating to or mentioning death, mourning, or even middle-age, future readings will be just as successful in suspending the readers disbelief. Only in a slightly different way. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Recurring Nightmares

I’ve never been a fan of scary movies or haunted houses. I’ve seen the The Shining. Once.  I tried watching it again a few years ago and didn’t make it through the opening credits. I’ve read some Steven King novels but they haven’t been as scary as books I’ve read about kidnapped children or this book by Anna Quindlen.

So it was with some trepidation that I chose a book for the horror category of the reading challenge I am working on. However when I saw David Mitchell’s Slade House under “Read a horror book” on this handy list from the NYPL, I realized I had found the perfect choice.

Slade House opens in 1979 in a voice reminiscent of characters from Mitchell's Black Swan Green. (This isn’t so bad, I thought.) Nathan and his mother have been invited by Lady Norah Grayer for an afternoon of music at her city residence Slade House. After some trouble finding the address, they step through an iron gate into a beautiful garden. Lady Norah’s brother Jonah befriends Nathan and they begin a game of chase around the house. After being frightened by a dog, Nathan runs inside and finds himself face-to-face of a portrait…of himself hanging on the wall. Nathan wakes up and finds himself with his father in Rhodesia. Has the previous scene been a dream? Or is this his dream now?

Mitchell keeps us guessing until the next section opens in 1988 when another unsuspecting guest of Slade House finds himself dreaming awake and sees his portrait on the stairs. Nine years later a group of college students in a paranormal society seek out the house hoping to find the guests who have disappeared in years past. They too meet their end at the hands of the crafty twins.

There is some comfort in the repetition. Upon meeting each new narrator, the reader expects he or she also will meet his or her demise. The suspense builds because we secretly hope they will escape or find a way to defeat these horrid twins who feed off human souls.  (I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t read the soul-feeding sections too closely.)

Breathing a sigh of relief, we find the next narrator, the sister of one of the students, not at Slade House but a local pub. She is meeting an informant who tells her the life histories of the Grayer twins. However, when she begins reading her texts from an increasingly frantic girlfriend, we realize the twins have simply projected a facsimile of the pub to lure her in. In the final section, a psychiatrist arrives on the scene hoping to be led through to the twins’ orison by an “astronaut.” In true Mitchell fashion, we get an action-packed final scene in which the twins’ weakened power is overrun by a time-traveling avenger.   

All in all, although there were a few hair-prickling scenes, I haven’t had nightmares and have had no trouble falling asleep. Though if someone invites me over for afternoon tea, I will be more than a little wary. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Blue Sky

Taking on a new reading challenge this year found me in the biography section of our new library. Having just watched this movie with my kids, I was drawn to Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. 

Starting with Henson's childhood, Jones illustrates both the nurturing influences of his fun-loving cast of extended relatives and the natural influences of a childhood spent exploring the creeks of Mississippi. An early fan of television, Henson soon sought out ways to appear on the small screen. He found an opening through puppetry and would spend the rest of his life fighting a reputation of being a children's performer.

Since I spent many of my own childhood afternoons watching repeats of this Muppet movie and introduced my own daughter to television with YouTube clips of this show, I was fascinated by reading the chapters outlining the debut of Miss Piggy’s karate chop and Fozzie’s bad stand-up jokes.

Even more striking, though, is the sheer amount of projects Henson was able to work on at one time. Although there are numerous accounts of Henson's gentle nature in directing these projects, Jones also points out Henson’s characteristic “whim of steel” that allowed many of his projects from The Muppet Show to Labyrinth to go forward.  

Fans of Fraggle Rock or The Dark Crystal will learn much about the script writing and creature crafting of these shows in reading this book. But they will also learn a lot about the determination, charisma, and joys of the man behind their creations.