Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Adderall Diaries: Stephen Elliott

Memoirs are, by nature, self indulgent writing. As readers we overlook this fact, hoping that the memoirist has something interesting or humorous to say. The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott is a mixed bag. At times it is a confusing rant about the life of a drug addled writer, but then it turns into the focused story of a fascinating murder. It’s a story about Elliott’s traumatic childhood, his adult penchant for sadomasochism, and his thin connection to a man on the outskirts of a high profile murder trial.

Stephen Elliott is not new to the writing world. He has written one other memoir as well as four novels and one volume of erotica. For him to begin this text by mentioning that he is battling his writer’s block by abusing the ADD medication Adderall, does not bode well for the book.

My struggle with this story is that it reads the way a man abusing Adderall would speak; it’s unfocused and wandering. I was never sure where he was taking the story, or what it was really about. The lone anchor in the story is a murder committed in 2007. A high profile computer programmer married a Russian mail-order bride, had two children with her, and after almost ten years together, murdered her for suspected infidelity. It’s an interesting event, and I’m sorry Elliott didn’t spend more time developing that story. Instead he writes about his teenage years spent living on the streets and in group homes. He writes about the strange array of dysfunctional relationships he enters. And of course, he talks about drugs. None of these things connect to the murder he is trying to write about.

Here’s the rub; Elliott is a fantastic writer. He commands a mastery of the English language. He writes with brutal honesty and ugly imagery. It is reminiscent of the Beats who wrote the garish truth (Ginsberg comes to mind). And though he is writing this self indulgent memoir, he does so by shining a light on the darker side of alternative lifestyles. He writes about sadomasochistic relationships and Adderall in his coffee as commonplace. Elliott writes about a world that most of America doesn’t even know exists, and he does so without shame. For that alone, Elliott deserves some kudos.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Girls' Poker Night: Jill A. Davis

Jill A. Davis was a comedic writer for the Late Show with David Letterman. This tidbit of information leads me to want to believe that she is going to be a Good Writer. In my opinion, A Good Writer is someone who knows the rules of fiction writing and adheres to them unless deviation is absolutely necessary for the sake of the story. The writing in Girls’ Poker Night is conversational with too much of the Late Show for my taste. Davis wanders as far from the rules of fiction as possible without entering the realm of the Beats, and for no apparent reason. Her conversational writing style doesn’t add to the mood of the novel. Instead, it exhausts me to the point of frustration. However! Once I became accustomed to the writing, the story itself—buried as it is—is charming.

For the first half of the book I wasn’t at all sure where it was going. There was no anchor to keep me hooked on the plot. Girls’ Poker Night is written in short vignette style scenes, sometimes related, but generally they read more like a series of random diary entries. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and the wandering writing of Davis made me uncertain of which direction Ruby was headed. Is this a self-help book disguised as a novel about a woman who is forced to muster up her courage? Or is it a trite Sex and the City style romance novel? The truth is, it’s kind of both.

Ruby Capote is a humor columnist who sets out to change her life. She leaves her somewhat odd boyfriend and the boring, go-nowhere life she has, in exchange for a job in New York. She reunites with some of the girls from college and starts up a venting circle in the guise of a Poker Night (hence the title). In her New York life, Ruby is forced to muster up the courage to face her personal fears regarding relationships—fears that many of us might relate to all too well! While simultaneously taming psychological demons, Ruby enters into an unstable relationship with the perfect man, who just happens to be her boss.

A reader like me is commiserating with Ruby one moment, and hollering at her idiocy in the next. Anyone who has struggled with relationships will want to warn Ruby against foolish mistakes, while also empathizing with her choices. She is a completely relatable character who also happens to be hilariously witty. While I don’t love the conversational writing style, I do love Ruby’s quips and clever insights.

I realize that my review of Girls’ Poker Night might seem unclear, so I’ll simplify. Writing? Not so great. Plot? Relatable. Main Character? Charming!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When You Are Engulfed In Flames: David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a short story writer who has gained a bit of notoriety over the years for his sharp wit and keen observation of the dysfunctional family dynamic. In reading some of his previous work, I was entertained and frequently provoked to compare my own dysfunctional family to the family he describes as his own. Sedaris doesn't hide the reality from his readers, rather, he illuminates how dysfunction makes a family what it is. I have never thought of his writing as funny at the expense of his family, but simply shining a light on some of the more humiliating facets of an average American family with the result of loving them all the more.

When You Are Engulfed In Flames is less about his family and more about the world at large. Perhaps it is the focus on others that makes me uncomfortable. Somehow, it's acceptable to point and laugh at your own family, but pointing and laughing at others is just cruel. In this collection of short stories, Sedaris does a lot of travel--Paris, London, America, Japan--and he manages to find something to poke fun of everywhere he goes--hygiene, language barriers, local customs, etc. At least he remembers to mention that he does plenty of things worth poking fun at as well.

The last story in this collection explains the title. It is called "The Smoking Section"; a recount of his efforts to quit smoking after a twenty-some year habit. This may have been my favorite chapter because of my personal relationship with nicotine, or because of the humor. In an effort to change his scenery and habits, Sedaris and his partner Hugh go to Tokyo for three months. It is a common belief that to quit smoking, one needs to change one's habits and hangouts. If only every smoker could afford to pick up and move away for three months!

My overall opinion is that while Sedaris is a witty and humorous writer, this particular collection relies too heavily on making entire cultures the butt of his jokes. Even when it's just a single person, he seems to be pointing and laughing in that big bully way that says "See? At least I'm better than that guy!"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Twilight Hunger: Maggie Shayne

This may be the hardest review I've ever written. What do I write about a book that should never have been written? About a cliched plotline, poor writing, and transparent characters? What do I write about monotonous and tired dialogue, weak "surprise" twists, and thinly veiled erotica? To critique this book would mean to find something valid about it, which seems utterly impossible. Still, I will try.

Twilight Hunger is, predictably, a story about vampires. Morgan De Silva is a screenwriter with a bad childhood (shocker!). She hermits herself away in an ancient old New England house where she finds the journals of a vampire named Dante. Using those journals, she churns out three screenplays that make it big on the Silver Screen. Of course she thinks they are the mad rantings of an old inhabitant of the house, but Dante is in fact one of the undead. When members of the secret Government agency dedicated to finding vampires follow the leads offered in Morgan's movies, Dante's non-life is threatened. Suddenly his secrets are made public, forcing him to seek out the writer who is revealing his methods. What ensues is a predictable living/un-dead romance filled with the terror of being hunted. As if loving a vampire would bring anything less.

Maggie Shayne has written 393 pages of what reads like fanfiction meets vampire erotica. The characters all speak alike, beginning sentences with "God" as an exclamation like "Gawd", which is just offensive: especially coming from a vampire. Shayne spends more time describing the sexual relations than the characters.

This book was a pleasant reminder that, in general, I really don't like vampire fiction.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Ida B: Katherine Hannigan

Ida B. has a near-perfect life; she lives with her mama and daddy on a farm with an orchard, and they all spend their days together, learning, laughing, and loving. For a young child, it's the perfect existence. When she's five years old, Ida B. is sent to pre-school, which turns out to be a bust. So Ida B. is homeschooled, where she can spend her free time with the trees, the hills, and the brook. Life, in general, is about as pefect as pie.

But then tragedy strikes. Mama has cancer and has to spend time in the hospital. When she's released, there are medical treatments that take the shine from her eyes. Ida B. gets lost in the shuffle of a new kind of life. Mama is too sick to care for her, daddy decides they have to sell some of the orchard to pay for the medical bills, and worst of all, Ida B. will have to go back to school.

Katherine Hannigan has written the perfect young reader novel. It is simultaneously charming and heartwarming, moving and realistic. Ida B. is a wonderful character who makes friends of the trees and the brook around her home. Her mind is quick and imaginitive, and I loved her immediately. Best about this novel, is that it really is for all ages. There is something about Ida B. that we can all relate to. Everyone has experienced some sadness or loss that has made us want to turn off our hearts forever. Ida B.'s story reminds us that we can't stay stone forever.

I have to mention that something about this book made me think of Pom Pom the whole time. Maybe it's the vivacity of Ida B. or her community with nature, but this is a character who will warm your heart from page one.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency is now an acclaimed tv series, based on this textured novel about Mma Ramotswe and her life as a lady detective in Botswana. A little slice of Africa, this novel illustrates all of the beautiful and warm things about an ancient country, as well as some of the culturally significant differences that make Africa so foreign.

Mma Ramotswe is the daughter of a wealthy cattleman. The story starts out with the death of her father, leaving his wealth to Mma Ramotswe to buy a shop. She opens a detective agency as the only female private detective in Botswana. It's quite charming how she faces anyone who challenges her qualifications. In a male-dominated society, a female detective is suspect, but Mma Ramotswe knows what she's good at! She opens her doors and encounters all types of mysteries, from the disappearance of a young boy, to the wandering off of a husband, to the fraud of a lost finger.

Mma Ramotswe is a fantastic, warm, real-life character who is an instant friend to the reader. The people she encounters are all so colorful and interesting. This is not a fast-paced detective novel; just an entertaining group of stories about some Botswana people. It's fun and clever, and if you pay attention, you'll learn a little about African culture.