Splintered, A.G. Howard, 2011

This is my one chance to find Wonderland, to cleanse the Liddell bloodline of this curse, and to save Alison. A.G. Howard

Disclaimer 1: I don’t like Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Disclaimer 2: I am not the intended audience of this book

Participating in this book challenge has been an overall rewarding experience. Thanks to the wide-ranging categories I’ve read books I’d never pick up had it not met certain criteria.

On the flip side, sometimes those books I never would have read are books I would have been happy without, as is the case with Splintered.

The “character with your name” challenge has been problematic. Despite the rising popularity of the name Alyssa, the literary world lags.

I settled on Splintered, mostly out of desperation (see disclaimer 1). It’s a Young Adult Fantasy (see disclaimer 2) set in the Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland universe. Splintered is an imaginative continuance of the Wonderland saga, one in which Wonderland and the book Alice in Wonderland co-exist.

The main character, Alyssa Gardner, is the teen descendent of Alice Liddell, Carroll’s inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Lewis and the rest of world consider Alice’s adventure to be childish make-believe. But the real Wonderland is a dark twisted realm lurking below. Alice’s visit left Wonderland’s inhabitants embroiled in political struggle and upheaval and only Alyssa can restore the balance.

Above ground Alice’s descendants suffered as well, victims of an insanity curse placed upon them for Alice’s transgressions. Alyssa, the great-great-great granddaughter of Alice, tries to break the curse to save her mother, Alison, from a scheduled lobotomy.

Following clues left by her Wonderland guide, Morpheus, Alyssa realizes Wonderland is not only real, it hides the cure to her mother’s insanity. Throughout her childhood Morpheus appeared either in the form of a moth or young boy her age so despite the bizarreness of the situation, she trusts him. Alyssa takes the plunge through the looking glass and embarks on a series of quests to repair what Alice broke and save her mother.

The story is compelling, though needlessly complicated, which fantasy stories lean towards. Rules for how magic works are doled out on a need to know basis and even then there’s always some exploitable loophole rendering the rules useless.

But that’s not the biggest problem Splintered has. It’s the characters.

Alyssa is an insufferable Mary Sue, who’s simply too delicate and fragile to be able to take on the quest alone. Enter Jeb, the overbearing lummox/love interest. Simply being Jeb makes him the authority in every situation, even when he has no clue. While Alyssa is certainly no expert, she’s still ahead of him in terms of information. She’s familiar not only with the Carroll story, but her own family’s history. She’s gathered clues. And yet when Jeb takes control, she demurs. In a world of powerful magic, Jeb is convinced his brute strength is more powerful. It isn’t.

After following her, uninvited, through the looking glass, he starts barking orders under the guise of “protecting” Alyssa. His sole motivation is to get them back home (Does he know how? No. No matter, he’s Jeb!), despite Alyssa’s quest to save her mother. With the guidance of the deceitful Morpheus, Alyssa traverses the whimsical landscape with Jeb dragging his feet the whole way. And yet somehow, she falls more in love with the oaf as they go.

Morpheus, Jeb’s romantic rival, brings out the worst in Jeb. And by worst, I mean the worst name-calling.

The dialogue is eye-rolling. Some of Jeb’s insults:

            “Hands off you son of a bug!”

            “I go where Al goes, dances-with-bugs.”

            “Take her silence as no, bug for brains.”

Sadly, despite his duplicity, Morpheus believes in Alyssa from the very beginning. He encourages her and implores her to see the inner strength that exists (it really doesn’t, but we’re told it’s there). Jeb, meanwhile, sees Alyssa as brittle and unsound, incapable of taking care of herself.

The best parts of the book happen toward the end when she leaves Jeb in a ditch and continues the journey on her own. Unfortunately, her thoughts are constantly on him and he seems to be her sole motivation. There were several times throughout the book I forgot that she was there to save her mother. Her universe revolves around Jeb.

Again, this book isn’t for me. Some of the teens side-eyed me as I invaded their part of the library. This is the kind of world where teenage girls yearn to belong to a guy and that guy will be completely theirs in some weird possessive pact. A world where the love interest is dating a beautiful, rich cold-hearted rival but just can’t seem to get his mind off Mary Sue Alyssa. A world where the only victory that matters is winning the boy.

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The Spy, Paulo Coelho, 2016

The cover of Paulo Coelho's novel The Spy features an actual photo of Mata Hari wearing an ornate swan head dress.

Yes, I turned gossip into “secrets” because I wanted money and power. But all those who accuse me now know I never revealed anything new. Paulo Coelho

Spoilers

Brazilian author Paolo Coelho brings Mata Hari to life in his espionage novel, The Spy. Formatted as Hari’s final letter to her attorney, Édouard Clunet, and his response, Hari’s life and death unfold in this fictional retelling of real events.

Born Margaretha Zelle in the Netherlands, she had an idyllic childhood until her early teens when her father went bankrupt, her parents divorced and her mother died, all within a three-year span. At 18, she married Dutch Colonial Army Captain Rudolf MacLeod, a man twenty years older than her. He whisked her away to Indonesia, far from her turbulent life and money problems. An unhappy marriage and the loss of a child caused her to flee to Paris.  There, with a dash of cultural appropriation, she transformed herself into Mata Hari, a supposed Javanese princess and exotic dancer. She was the definition of overnight success and supplemented her dancing income by becoming what one could politely call a courtesan.  These connections to high society movers and shakers would be her downfall.

Her rise to fame was quick, but once World War I started, she lost her status. She received an offer of employment as a German spy which she accepted with the intention of actually working as a double agent for France. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong man to trust in the French government and he sold her out.

These facts are available almost anywhere. Wikipedia, biography.com, Britannica.com are some of the first sites that pop up when you type Mata Hari. Coelho supplements the facts, imbuing the space between bullet points with Mata Hari’s imagined feelings, motivations and intentions.

The Spy was translated from Coelho’s original native tongue, Portuguese.  As with any translation, the reader wonders what was lost between one language to the next.  How close to the author’s vision was the translator while maneuvering over idiomatic barriers.

I bring this up because Coelho’s Mata Hari doesn’t come across as likeable. I don’t know if he didn’t write her sympathetically or if some linguistic artistry got lost.  I get the feeling if she were alive today, her IG captions would be variations of “I’m so ugly, right?” or esoteric Facebook posts asking for prayers but not saying why. Her attention seeking seems insatiable and exhausting even while her bold resourcefulness is admirable.

Despite her poor choices, Mata Hari’s punishment had nothing to do with spying (she never gave the Germans information). Her fatal offense was cashing in on her own sexuality and parlaying her appeal into social currency. No matter how it gets translated, that comes across clearly.

Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, 2000

But the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is—contrary to all our expectations—a certainty. Malcolm Gladwell.

Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell is known for his gift of explanation. In Blink he studies the “hows” and “whys” of split-second decisions. In Outliers he tackles the “who” behind success. But in his first book, The Tipping Point, he focuses on “what”, as in what makes certain phenomena spread across cities, states, countries, even the world. He offers detailed insight into the precise moment something goes viral, when mere events or spectacles get nudged over the line and become crazes. Like when Cabbage Patch Kids, Tickle-Me-Elmos and fidget spinners went from toys on a store shelf to national obsessions.

According to Gladwell, the tipping point is the “moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” With language usually reserved for the medical field, Gladwell discusses “infections” and “epidemics” that happen across disciplines ranging from medicine, criminology, commercialism and urban development. Backed by studies and anecdotal materials he identifies important moments during specific phenomena’s lifespans. With an uncanny ability to infuse dry material with a dose of, he takes readers through different phenomenon and pinpoints the causes in a way that can change your viewpoint.

As is Gladwell’s signature style, he points out problems and the obscure solutions and explains why it’s obvious. For instance, New York’s improved subway safety can be traced, not to more police presence, but to fixing broken windows and cleaning graffiti. Why? Because those things symbolize a breakdown of society thereby giving the criminals a perceived camouflage. Removing the pervasive low-level criminal elements (graffiti and vandalism) makes the next level (muggers, gangs) stand out.

In a different example, Baltimore’s successful needle exchange program wasn’t a success because of the medical agencies going out and exchanging needles one by one. The “retailers”, addicts who picked up hundreds of discarded needles, traded them in and made a small business out of selling clean needles to fellow addicts for a dollar. It doesn’t diminish the success of the program, but it changes the way it operates.

The most striking comes from an edition of Gladwell’s book that includes a new afterward by the author. He compares an epidemic of suicide among teen boys in Micronesia and the school shootings done by teen boys in the United States.  In both cases, the boys were “infected” with the ideas. In Micronesia it can be traced to a well-known affluent young man who killed himself as part of a love triangle. In the United States, it can be traced to Columbine. The fact that they can be traced at all means there’s reasoning, logic and methodology to the phenomena. It also means there is hope of curtailing it, if not completely stop it.

That’s what makes The Tipping Point so interesting. His findings give people reason to look at problems in different ways, looking for a solution that may not make sense in theory but does in practice.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast, 2014

It was against my parents principles to talk about death. Roz Chast

Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Neil Gaiman. They do horror alright, but if you want something visceral—heart palpitating, shake you to the core, staring up at your ceiling at three a.m. scary—Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a must read.

Most horror happens in a realm of fantasy. Think supernatural creatures or twisted psychopaths you’d have a million in one chance of crossing paths with in real life.

In New Yorker cartoonist’s Roz Chast’s graphic novel, the villain is age.

Also, it’s not meant to be a horror story.

Specifically, it’s a memoir of her parent’s old age and eventual deaths. And for those readers lucky enough to still have their parents, Chast’s work is unnerving as it spells out in detail the cruel indignities of aging. Not just from the elderly perspective, but from the caregivers who may be torn between the needs of parents and the needs of their own children.

The sobering graphic novel touches on a part of aging few of us think about: deterioration. We dread the death but forget that it can takes years to get to that point. As each day passes there’s a loss of some kind: loss of independence, loss of control, loss of memory. And the one we aren’t supposed to talk about…loss of money. Yes, it’s quite expensive to die in the United States. Even more expensive to stay alive. Assisted living facilities, nursing homes, at home help and hospice— all these things cost money and even the most frugal savers can find themselves with a the dubious gift…living longer than expected and outliving their means.

Much like Chasts’ 2017 Going Into Town, the book is informative with the same conversational tone. CWTASMP it’s much more personal. While she recounts her parents’ death, she’s also definitely working through the complicated relationships she had with them.

I wasn’t kidding about the book being scary. Like Chast, I’m an only child.  Thankfully, my parents are still relatively young and in good health. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t worry about all our futures, especially when in ten years I’ll have three kids in college. This book doesn’t really do anything to allay those concerns.

Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast, 2017

It began as a small booklet I made for my daughter before she left her home in Suburbia to attend college in Manhattan. Roz Chast

I’ve only been to New York City, Manhattan specifically, once in my life. It was a about seven months after 9/11 and even though I’d never set foot on its streets prior to that visit, I could tell the city wasn’t itself. In fact, the United States was trying to adjust to a new reality and there was this sense that we were all acting normal though we weren’t feeling it. As such, I missed out on the energy and hustle and bustle for which New York is known.

Roz Chast is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker. She’s also written and illustrated several books.

She makes it clear that this book is not meant to be guidebook. There are no detailed descriptions of places and activities, though she included plenty of hand drawn maps. It’s more like a “how to” book. How to navigate Manhattan, how to live in Manhattan and how to enjoy Manhattan. It’s also a persuasive argument about why to love Manhattan. The book is utterly charming in its sincerity.

Several pages show readers the grid that makes up most of Manhattan’s transportation system: avenues vs. streets, cross streets, the importance of Fifth Avenue, etc. There’s a chapter devoted to using the subway, complete with descriptions of the number and letter trains and the shuttle, taxis and buses needed to complete the journey.

It’s as informative and as it is entertaining. Chast has an easy to understand writing style, paired with jittery sketch-ish illustrations that help convey the meaning. Despite growing up in Brooklyn and living in Manhattan for years, she has a folksy Midwestern friendliness not usually ascribed to New Yorkers. Her teachings are done with patience and her insights are thoughtful enough to include what most New Yorkers probably take for granted. The tone is optimistic and assuring.

Though she left New York in the early nineties, Chast and the city parted on good terms and she has nothing but lovely things to say about the relationship.

The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, Agatha Christie, 1963

It all began, you see, with Heather Badcock being the kind of person she was.
Agatha Christie

Spoilers—

“Haven’t we been over this a great many time?” said Jason Rudd.
“Yes, but we shall have to go over it once more,” said Miss Marple.

And that, dear readers, sums up the book. Thanks for stopping by!

This is my first and only Agatha Christie novel. I found it to be a poor execution of an exploitative idea. That’s a shame because Gene Tierney and her tragic situation deserved better.

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1943, decades before a Rubella (German measles) vaccine was available, a self-centered infected fan defied doctor’s orders and visited the pregnant actress, Gene Tierney, during a USO event at the Hollywood Canteen. The disease is mild for those who get it, but it’s known to pose a serious threat to unborn babies. Years later, Tierney and the fan met up again. The fan boasted how’d she’d broken quarantine to visit Tierney at the Hollywood Canteen years earlier. Allegedly, the woman even jokingly asked Tierney if she’d contracted German measles from the meeting. She had. Sadly, Tierney’s daughter was born deaf and mentally disabled as a result of exposure to the virus.

Christie lifted this real-life tragedy, plopped it into her book and built a mystery around it. Tierney becomes Marina Gregg, a fragile unstable actress haunted by dark secrets as she stages a comeback. The diseased fan is now Heather Badcock, a pushy clueless yokel. Much like the true story, Marina and Heather meet up years after an initial encounter. Heather boasts how she was driven by ‘devotion’ to her favorite actress, leaving her sickbed to get Marina’s autograph.

This is where fact and fiction diverge. While nothing happened to the real-life Typhoid Mary, Heather Badcock meets a quick demise after taking a sip from a poisoned cocktail. I’m not going to go into too much detail because it’s a mystery novel but suffice it to say there’s clues and red herrings galore. Beloved old biddy Jane Marple and her nephew Inspector Craddock run parallel investigations giving the reader a double dose of the same information.

The biggest problems I have:

Nobody just gets to the point. Characters proclaim they have a point to make, then digress with some unnecessary context. Of course, some other character has to interject their own uselessness. It can be paragraphs before the point is made. But, boy, when they finally get to it, prepare for some…

Ad nauseum point making. I lost count of how many times I was informed that Heather Badcock wasn’t the actual target of the poisoning. We’re also told by several characters about Marina Gregg’s mental state and Heather Badcock’s irksome personality. And don’t get me started on how many characters try to describe Gregg’s “Lady of Shallot” look.

Limited suspect list. Outside of the character who actually committed the crime, no one else really had motive or opportunity. Neither Heather or Marina’s death would necessarily benefit anyone, not in a clear simple way. Marple and Craddock eliminate suspects almost as quickly as they name them.

Racism! They straight up refer to an Italian character as a wop! Several times!!!

All this and she made a quick buck off Tierney’s troubles (uncredited no less).

Had this not been inspired by a true story, the plot would be fascinating, but Christie takes far too much enjoyment in the real-life details for me to feel comfortable reveling in the mystery. Given the efforts Tierney went through to hide her daughter’s condition, I can’t believe she was happy about it either. This ends up feeling like a sleazy ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law & Order.

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, 2006

Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time. Alison Bechdel

SPOILERS

One of the instriguing aspects of the book challenge is that seemingly innocuous categories like “A book with a green spine”, which this book fits into, could have been anything. It’s such an arbitrary requirement that limits the book based on nothing more than aesthetics without placing any expectations on the content. It amazes me that I chose a work that was so affecting for no other reason that the color of the spine.

Not much about Alison Bechdel’s childhood was normal. Her educated, artistic parents settle in the small town of Beech Creek, PA (population 700) so her father, the local high school English teacher could also run the family funeral home (the titular Fun Home). They resided in a run-down gothic revival mansion though the family was not rich. Her father lived as a closeted gay man and Bechdel herself was on the verge of discovering/admitting that she was a lesbian.

Though it’s very much an autobiography, Bechdel’s groundbreaking work centers around the complicated relationship she had with her complicated father. He loomed as a shadowy figure rather than an actual living breathing human being. Though physically present, he remained emotionally detached as he grappled with conflicting forces: his repressed sexual urges and familial and social responsibilities. Trying to decipher her enigmatic father decades after his death, she recalls the good, the bad and the confounding parts of her journey from childhood to adulthood.

Bechdel is a complicated figure herself. Fascinated by images of masculinity and men’s fashion, she eschews anything girly or overtly feminine. In college, she comes out, a daunting yet liberating realization. Just months later, her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Though his death could easily have been tragic accident, she considers it suicide. It haunts Bechdel, leaving her to wonder if her announcement may have been a factor, if not the catalyst for his choice, a heavy burden for a young woman.

Each panel is highly detailed and dense with visual information, like still frames shot in deep focus. She doesn’t shy away from nudity or sexual situations which can be jarring—especially if you’re reading it in the waiting room of your kids’ orthodontist’s office. Being allowed so much access into someone’s life feels voyeuristic at times, mostly because Bechdel’s experience is so specific I couldn’t even pretend to relate though I certainly sympathize.

Overlaying her childhood on top of the literature that was so important to both her and her father she draws comparisons to tragic figures like Daedalus and Gatsby as well as authors like Camus and Joyce. It’s as if she’s analyzing him against the field of literature rather than psychology. Of course, with complicated questions and subjects, there’s never easy answers. Fun Home doesn’t pretend to offer any. Bechdel simply shares her thoughts, opinions and musings about her unique childhood.