Archive for December, 2012

Gods Behaving Badly / Marie Phillips

In the twenty-first century hard times have befallen the twelve Greek gods of Olympus.  They are now crammed into a shabby London town house and getting on each other’s nerves.  Worse still, boredom has set in, almost no one believes in them anymore, and their powers seem to be fading.  Thus opens Phillips’ first novel, an inspired and zany updating of Greek mythology.  The reader is introduced to Artemis, goddess of hunting (now a dog walker), Aphrodite, goddess of beauty  (now a telephone sex operator), and Apollo, god of the sun (now a TV psychic).  A minor squabble between Aphrodite and Apollo escalates into a battle that threatens the survival of humankind.  Caught up in this tussle of wills are two mortals: Alice, a meek housekeeper, and her would-be boyfriend, Neil.  Their lives will be turned upside down when the gods start behaving badly.  Phillips does a great job of capturing the tedium of the gods’ millennia-long existence.  Her story is a fast-paced farce, a romantic comedy that is thoroughly irreverent and makes for a delightful debut.  My only complaint centers on the book’s ending: I found it a bit too predictable and disappointingly bland and flat.   Even so, this novel left me with a smile upon my face.

Winter Still Life

If viewed from the outside,
a winter still life:
That forgotten cup of tea.
A peeled clementine
segmented on the plate.
A colorful afghan
draped for added warmth.
An open book
weighing both eyes down.

Yet should you step inside,
the scene comes alive:
That cup of tea is steaming.
Music accompanies
the savoring of an orange.
Dust motes dance
in gusts of recycled air.
Rising off the page,
a separate world evolves.

My Inner Voice

At the start of any bike ride
my inner voice becomes a chatterbox.
A commanding distraction,
it has to comment on everything
seen or felt along the way.
Look at those starlings chasing
a squirrel.  How silly
most people look in biking outfits
.
My inner voice seems to be
a jukebox plugged with quarters.
Refusing to shut up,
it continues to babble without
any kind of self-censor.
Silence is never given a chance to
enter the conversation.
But at some point, fortified by
exercise’s calming mantra,
the body brazenly disconnects
its noisy command center.
The chattering of my inner voice,
finally, falls on deaf ears.

Moonwalking With Einstein : the Art and Science of Remembering Everthing/ Joshua Foer.

Foer is a reporter and when researching an article in 2005 he attended the USA Memory Championship.  He was fascinated by what he saw there and decided to taken on the challenge of becoming a participant in the contest the following year.  After twelve months of “memory training,” not only did he take part in the 2006 event, he emerged as its winner.  This book is an account of his odyssey of becoming mental athlete and the tricks he mastered along the way.  If that were the true focus of his story, it would make a thin and rather uninteresting read.  Fortunately, he spends an equal amount of time examining the scientific studies on how memory works, and what happens in brain injured patients when it doesn’t.  He also discusses the role memory played in handing down our historical record, and details the tricks used by mentalists throughout the ages to improve memory’s recall.  The current batch of master mentalists struck me as being egotistical geeks taking part in the various competitions merely for the fame involved in winning such events.  It is interesting that they are mostly male.  While some of the “memory tricks” presented here might be of some practical use, most of us will never need to use a “memory palace” to memorize a deck of cards or an entire poem.  Even Foer admits at the book’s end that for all the memory stunts he had learned, he still misplaced car keys and cars.  The subtitle of this book especially bothered me.  It strikes me as a form of false advertising since even master mentalists are shown in the book as fallible and incapable of remembering everything.  My guess is the publisher to increase sales appended it to draw in the gullible public fearing future dementia.

headline news

that bulletin
hot off the AP wire
a promise
in last night’s eyes
guaranteeing
front page coverage
turns out to be
merely a misprint
her heart’s
issued a retraction
it seems upon
reflection I am not
headline news

The leftovers / Tom Perrotta

In the opening chapter, readers learn that a year before on October 14, the Sudden Departure took place.  It was a Rapture-like phenomenon where millions of people around the world simply vanished into thin air.  One might think Perrotta has decided to try his hand at writing science fiction.  While a fascinating hook, the author could have used any national/global tragedy to anchor his book around.  (9/11 comes to mind).  His intent is not to explore what caused the unexplained departure, rather, he focuses on “the leftovers,” the survivors and how they cope in the aftermath of the event.  Perrotta sets the novel in Mapleton, a suburban American town.  Kevin Garvey is Mapleton’s new mayor and he is trying to find ways to speed up the healing process.  But his family too has fallen apart in the wake of the Sudden Departure.  His wife, Laurie, has joined the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members have taken a vow of silence.  His son, Tom, has dropped out of college and become a follower of Holy Wayne, a man who claims to be a prophet.  Only his teenage daughter, Jill, still lives with him in the family home.  But she is no longer the innocent, straight A student she was before October 14.  In alternating chapters, the author peers into the hearts and minds of the Garvey’s, and one additional character, Nora Durst, a woman who lost her entire family in the event.  By concentrating on their ordinary lives, the novel illuminates in personal terms a community’s response to such a tragedy.  It is a novel that examines the survivors’ sense of loss, guilt, and resiliency.  Perrotta tackles this ambitious topic with his usual aplomb.  Using the microcosm of an American suburb, he shows how such an event affects marriages, friends, and the family structure itself.  It is a thoughtful book about regular people as they struggle to hold onto past beliefs while trying to build a more hopeful future.

Before I go to sleep / S. J. Watson

Christine Lucas is a middle-aged woman who, following a traumatic head injury, suffers from an unusual type of amnesia.  Every night after she falls asleep, most of her memories are erased.  Upon awakening, she believes herself to be a young, unmarried woman, only to be shocked to discover that she has a husband and is forty-seven years old.  Ben, the husband in question, seems to be a loving spouse and attentive to her needs.  Still, she feels uneasy to be living with a person who is a complete stranger to her.  Even so, he is the man she has to rely on each day to tell her about herself.  Nonetheless, there are indications he might not be telling her the entire truth.  For one thing, unbeknownst to Ben, she is seeing a neuropsychologist who has encouraged her to keep a journal of daily activities and any flashes of memory that occur.  On the first page of her notebook she has written, “Don’t Trust Ben.”  The journal itself reveals a slightly different reality than her husband has shared.  It is a great concept for a novel, and initially, Watson does an excellent job of portraying the emotions felt by someone who each day must recreate her life story.  For added spice, Watson ratchets up the suspense with accumulating clues that seem to indicate her husband might be the man responsible for her brain-injured state.  But in the latter half of the novel, he runs out of fresh ideas to explore and the story becomes repetitive.  Playing to the cheap seats, he resorts to a formulaic “woman in danger” conclusion.  The author is to be commended for tackling such a difficult topic in his debut novel.  Unfortunately, the concept also seems to have boxed him into a corner.  Rather than exploring the psychological issues surrounding such an intriguing premise, he falls back on writing merely an entertaining thriller.