Sunday, August 26, 2012

Books that Make Me Grin

Okay, after an uneventful week (phew) I am returning to the plan. The plan to make you happy! Here's how: read these books. So easy, right? Plus, two of them are series starters, so there are books and books of smiles on the horizon. You're welcome.

I am turning into what might modestly be termed a rabid super-fan of E. Lockhart's novels. It all started with Frankie, but once I knew how ably she grabbed onto the everyman-ness of her teen characters and explored their gorgeous depths, I was hooked. The Boyfriend List is the first in a series about Ruby Oliver, a 15 year old exploring the genesis of her panic attacks with her newly-acquired shrink. It's about boys, and crushes, and friendships, and betrayals, and Popsicles. But it's anything but mundane, because Ruby is stellar. She doesn't know she's stellar, and her shrink doesn't set out to prove she's stellar, and her friends certainly don't end up thinking she's stellar, but we the readers get to know it, and that's the magic and the joy of Lockhart. Plus, footnotes!

Another fun series starts with The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz. The Spellmans are a family of private detectives living in San Francisco, and their bad sheep is our slightly defensive, very snarky, but loving narrator, Izzy. She grew up second-place to her always-perfect brother David, and then her parents had adorable late-in-life baby Rae, putting her in third. Her spate of teenage crimes and romantic disasters are, mostly behind her, but that doesn't stop her parents from putting Rae on the tail of Izzy's new boyfriend. (The Spellmans spend as much time spying on each other as they do on their clients. Surveillance tasks are both a punishment and on-the-job-training.) Izzy wants out from under the phone tap, but when Rae goes missing, nothing will stop her until her sister is found. Izzy's voice has a quick energy that feels effortless, and Lutz puts her through her paces with a great deal of charm and good old-fashioned moxie that is a delight to read.

And now on to side-splitting guffaws. Jenny Lawson, also known as The Bloggess, wrote (and narrated) her "Mostly True Memoir" Let's Pretend This Never Happened, which engendered more laughs per minute than anything I'd read/listened to since the next-to-last David Sedaris. (I didn't really go for his bestiary.) It was problematic, actually, since I listened while commuting. Fortunately I have a hybrid now, so sitting in the car after reaching my destination just to listen to more words from the sound system doesn't destroy so much of the environment. Unfortunately I listened to this mostly with my kids in the car (which will make you question my suitability as a parent. But I skipped the most adult stuff with the 12 year old!), and they got really mad at me if I listened to any of it without them. Basically, Lawson grew up in small-town Texas, with an eccentric-to-say-the-least father and all kinds of odd small-town Texas school situations. But even the not so odd stuff is comedy gold when viewed through Lawson's somewhat skewed perspective. She's a fan of the hyperbole, and extremely good at combining self-deprecation with emotional resonance. I hope there's a next book, and a next, and a next in her.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nightmares and the Need for Sweet Dreams

One of my goals for this weekend was to write a post about some books that made me smile. Instead, I spent most of it reading books that made me cry. Or maybe, crying anyway, and using books to keep me from focusing too much on the reasons why. Either way, I will have to get you all the smiley stuff later, because the tears took precedence. 

So, my 16 year old was in an accident Friday night. He is uninjured. Everyone is uninjured. The other car is undamaged. His car is totaled. Really, totally totaled.

He'd just left to head into town and I was on my way out to a friend's house for dinner. My phone rang with his special ringtone (Yaz's "Don't Go" because a) I'm that old and b) I don't always like having a son this old) and I was a little put-off, knowing he would be on the freeway and obviously we're not so encouraging of him using his phone while he is driving. He was on the freeway, all right. Standing on the shoulder and saying, "Mom, I had an accident."

He was changing lanes. There was a monster truck in his blind spot - specifically, its big ol tire. Then his car was spinning, and he was slamming head-on into the barrier, and meeting his air bag up close and personal. 

He doesn't remember all the details, except that it seemed to go on for a long time. And then there was the acrid smell, orange flames under the hood, gray smoke in the car.

The truck driver pulled over - he and his passenger were fine, his tire seems to be fine (though it sure left a lot of rubber on D's car door.) They made sure D was fine - he is. Even his violin, which was in the back seat (he was on the way to a performance) was still in tune. The police, tow truck, and fire truck were all on the scene before I managed to babble something semi-coherent and vaguely reassuring to K and get there myself. 

I was relieved to see him standing beside the car when I pulled onto the shoulder myself. The paramedics had already cleared him, and the fire truck pulled away shortly after I arrived. There was almost literally not a scratch on him, but there is a little scrape on his knee. And some skin burn from the airbag, but that faded quickly. Fading not so quickly - my fear reaction, R's fear reaction, D's fear reaction.

The police helped us clear off to a nearby parking lot where the exchange of information and so forth happened, and I got my first good look at what deployed airbags and a crumpled frame looks like. 

Hooray for Honda, I have to say. We got this car new in 2003, and R drove it just a little while before I claimed it, so it was my car, my baby, until January when I got my Honda hybrid & passed it on to D. Kind of rough to see it all destroyed like that, and silly of me to imagine it sacrificing itself to keep D safe, but I can't help feeling it. That car was a dragon protector, and I love it for shielding my baby. 

I still remember one of our first drives in it, when he was 7, sitting in the back seat, his brother's booster seat beside him, and I told him that when he was older it would be his car. He was so proud when it became his - laughing as he cleaned out all my various hair clips and books and whatever and putting his own crap in there.

Now all that crap is in my trunk, where we stashed it after dropping the wreck at the collision center, knowing that we were likely to never see it again. Sight unseen, the insurance agent said it was 99.8% sure to be totaled. If he'd seen it, I think the odds would have been higher. 

After cleaning it out, I drove D downtown for what was left of his performance. Passing the scene of the accident, seeing bits of his tire on the road - it was not easy, for either of us. D's adrenaline high crashed when we talked about his driving again, and among other things he said he thought the time he blew a tire on the way to the DMV was going to be the worst of his teenage boy unfortunate driving experiences. We agreed that this one is more than enough to get him through high school, and hopefully college. 

The next day at 6 am, I put D into a stranger's car for a 4 hour drive into the country (scout thing) and R and I alternately texted him and asked each other if we'd heard from him until he called in the afternoon to check in. The reception was spotty, but hearing him was vital to me. Like us, D was going through a lot of "what-ifs" by then, and since he was the one with the spinning and the smoke and the impact, I imagine it was even worse for him than it was for us. I mean, maybe. Because he knew he was okay, and yes, I also knew he was okay, but did I mention that this boy is my baby? That he is so amazing and vital and essential to my existence, and he had an accident and it could have... It might be worse, the stuff going on in his head. But I think the stuff going on in my head is plenty bad enough.

So Friday night, Saturday night - not a lot of sleep. I stayed up most of Saturday night reading (and crying - lots of cathartic tearful things happening in Robyn Carr's work, I've found.) Once he got home safely on Sunday (and I dosed myself up with some bedtime tea Sunday night) I slept a little better, but still with the nightmares. It's getting better. I cried when talking to D about trying to balance my need to wrap him a cocoon with my logical side's argument that he was going to have to drive again someday soon. I cried when writing to my friends about this. I cried last night watching a tv mom see the wrecker towing her tv daughter's car. I cried just now.

We are insanely lucky that he is okay. He was unhurt. No one else's person or property was hurt. But I am going to keep crying periodically. I am going to have some weird sad scary dreams for a while, and I think D will, too. And R. And K, too. (My sweet empathetic K has been quite the dispenser of giant hugs lately. That boy rules.) I really, really want my family to have sweet dreams again. 

I hope you all have sweet dreams, always. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Fiction is Fun for Everyone

Three hefty bits of fiction this week, published between 1847 and this year, but I’ll take them in reverse chronological order of their stories.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn – I don’t know what to tell you. Read it. There, done. I mean, I could get into the plot some (woman goes missing on her 5th anniversary, husband is confounded and suspected, things happen) but really, it all unfolds so grippingly that I wouldn’t want to give a bit of it away in advance. What I will tell you is that Flynn knows her characters inside out, more thoroughly than most any author I can think of, and it is wonderful. And terrifying, because everyone is flawed, Flynn’s characters perhaps more than others. I listened to this book, narrated by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heywood, and you know, normally I listen to books while I do stuff – chores, work, exercise, whatever. But this, I was often enough just sitting, rapt. Or pacing, to better concentrate and absorb and anticipate and fret. Whelan was smooth as butter, which fit the character to a tee, and Heywood, oh - there was such a landscape in his narration. This was my second Flynn novel, and I found after the previous (Sharp Objects) that I needed a little recovery time before starting this, but I am unable to stay away from her. Her writing has become a serious, dangerous addiction.

My little palate cleanser after Gone Girl was Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, which I hadn’t read since high school. I had the mistaken impression that I didn’t really care for it, that it was too gothic and silly and melodramatic for me. Well, maybe it had been, at one point (there is a madwoman in the attic, after all), but that would have been when I was stupid. Now that I’m smart, I love it. “Reader, I forgave him….” Oh, I was in tears. (Okay, I cry all the dang time at books. One of these days I’ll be crying over something in real life, and my family will just not blink, because they’ll assume my head is, again, as always, in a book or a movie. But these tears were realer than the rest! They were Velveteen Rabbit tears!) Anyway, I had forgotten large swathes of this novel – all of her school years, much of what brought Jane and Mr. Rochester together to start with, the annoying neighbors. (Mad women in attics and a little bit of transcendental communication will knock other details right out of the mind.) And I don’t think I’d ever noticed just how awesome a female Jane Eyre is. She’s far more the arbiter of her own fate than I’d realized, and I delighted in getting to know her strength and intelligence and morality. And the humor between her and Rochester! Such fun. I’m very glad I gave this another chance. (Now, will I do the same for Wuthering Heights? Reader, stay tuned!)

Madeline Miller’s debut, The Song of Achilles, is more a fleshing out of the lives of Achilles and Patroclus than a retelling of the Iliad, though of course the Trojan War comprises a great deal of the novel. We meet Patroclus, the narrator, when he is five and first encounters the depth of his father’s disapproval of him and the height of golden potential that is the five-year-old Achilles. Patroclus spends a few dismal years disappointing his kingly father before being disowned and sent off to foster with Achilles’s father, King Peleus. It takes time for the resentful and jealous boy to make peace with the glory that is Achilles, but soon they are intimate friends. The sea goddess Thetis is Achilles’s mother, and she is not best pleased that her son has taken an ugly mortal as his boon companion. The whole ‘mom’s disapproval of teenage son’s friendships only brings them closer’ thing is clearly at play here, and Achilles will not be separated, even when Thetis sends him off to be educated by the centaur Chiron. It turns into a golden idyll for the young men, and the exploration of their physical love for each other. Then Helen is kidnapped, and Greece goes to war against Troy. Fate sends Achilles to battle, to wrestle with his destiny and prophesized death, and Patroclus remains at his side. What I loved about this book – the reverting of Achilles from legendary warrior to sweet kid, the view of him through the eyes of a loving friend who doesn’t love war, the easy prose. My husband (who teaches the Iliad) snorted at the ‘they were lovers’ angle, but for us modern mortals who don’t ‘get’ godly motivations as well as the ancients did, adding the upset and jealous mom to Thetis’s relationship with both men was interesting, and effective. Note to self: approve of my kid’s romantic choices, or risk his rebellion.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Wisdom (Teeth) Out of the Mouths of Babes

My baby (yes, he's 16 & almost a foot taller than me - doesn't matter) had his wisdom teeth out this week. Picture this:

Where - Maxillofacial Surgery Post-Op Recovery Room (a grey cubby sort of room, with disconcertingly placed windows and just enough room for a padded bench and a stacking chair.)

When - 20 minutes after his jaw operation

Who - Concerned Loving Mother and Groggy Anesthetized Son 


Well, that was the question. WHAT was the boy trying to say to me, with his combination of vowel sounds and gestures? I mean, we can't blame him for his inarticulateness. He's still numb, and he has the bandages. Just look at him. (Poor baby!) But he is persistent. He has a message, and he WILL convey it. That is, he will if he can get me to grasp his meaning. 

D comes up with the universal gesture for 'writing stuff down' so i hand over pen and paper. It probably seemed like a great idea to him, but, well. Recumbent and drugged out handwriting isn't exactly his forte. I get him to rewrite it a few times, while trying to get it through his fuzzy head that I understand the "I just want to say" part. It's the rest I can't figure out. (He wants to say... oh, thank you. To me, I ask? No. To - arm circling gesture. The universe, you mean? Oh, right, just everyone here. You just want to say thank you to everyone at the Maxillofacial Surgery Center. Okay, good. But wait, there's more! He wants to say thank you - yes, we have that part - and it was... wait, has he gone back to sleep? Oh, no, he means dream. It was like a dream. So what he wrote there is, "I want to say thank you and it was like a dream." Yes. Obviously.

I pass the message along to the nurses and the surgeon. (D is so polite! He can barely grasp that I'm being given post-op instructions, but when the surgeon stands to leave, D reaches up for a handshake. Someone should praise whoever taught that boy manners.)

So now we have another 20 minutes or so to wait before he's alert enough to go home. D mentions that he'd been dreaming of The Beatles and some other stuff (the Beatles medley over the stereo competed with the Olympics on the t.v. and the very chatty old guy in the corner for most prominent sound in the waiting room.) He repeats himself about the dreaming, the thanks, the fact that his chin is numb. He tries to write more, but can't control the pen well, so he resorts to charades.

D: (holds up 3 fingers.)
Me: Three words
D: (thumbs up. holds up 1 finger.)
Me: First word.
D: (shakes head. holds up 3 fingers.)
Me: Three words.
D: (holds up 3 fingers again.)
Me: Third word.
D: (thumbs up. points to me.)
Me: Me?
D: (thumbs up. holds up 2 fingers.)
Me: Second word.
D: (nods. reaches up a finger and air-draws a big letter...)
Me: P?
     (Does he need to pee? Do I?)
D: (shakes head. draws the letter again.)
Me: R? Oh, are! Okay, something are me... are you.
D: (nods, holds up 1 finger.)
Me: First word. We got this.
D: (points at head)
Me: Ice pack? Head? Jaw?
D: (rolls eyes. taps head again.)
Me: Does it hurt?
D: (rolls eyes harder. leans forward and tugs on my hair.)
Me: Hair? Hair are me?
D: (frustrated grunt. leans forward and tugs on my hair, then taps my chair.)
Me: Oh, rhymes with hair and chair! Okay, where? Where are you? Where am I? I'm right here, we're at the oral surgeon's office.
     (Wow, he's still pretty confused. I thought he'd be more with it by now. Should I alert the staff?)
D: (frustrated grunt. points to hair, chair, his head, exaggeratedly hums) ooounn iiii....
Me: Sounds like...
D: (thumbs up plus eye roll. holds up 1 finger, taps head where his ear would be if I could see his ear beneath the thing holding on his ice packs.)
Me: First word, sounds like.
D: Ooooooo
Me: Sounds like moo!
D: (thumbs up.)
Me: Moo are you. Who are you? D, I'm your mom.
     (Oh, that's scary. He really ought to know his mommy, right? Where is that nurse??)
D: (biggest eye roll yet, negating hand waves. repeat of ear tap) Oooo, oow!
Me: Moo, moo cow?
D: (nodding) ow! (taps ear area) oow
Me: First word is how?
D: (thumbs up.)
Me: How are you?
D: (nods)
Me: Um... I'm fine. Thanks. Thank you, sweetie, I'm doing just fine.
     (Now that I know you know who I am, and where we are, and also that you think 'moo' and 'how' rhyme and that I get to enjoy that fact forever.)