Lillinandra

Does a book even have to exist to spark the imagination and linger there? Can the idea of a story sometimes hold greater power if the story is never brought to life? Within these pages is a collection of anonymous voices. They each want to tell you the essence, the details, the impact of a book they've read. That the works they describe aren't real leaves it entirely to the imagination whether they were masterpieces, failures, or something in between. Epic romances, thrillers, comedies, stories of war, loss, and triumph, collections of photographs, bizarre prose experiments---they are spoken of one by one by people who have not been able to forget what the pages made them feel. Lillinandra summons volumes that cannot be celebrated or condemned by critics, the public, or the passage of time. They belong to everyone and no one, and they will all, in their own way, be perfect forever, perhaps more enduring than if they had actually been born.







 Lillinandra

 copyright 2005 by Soren Narnia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In kindergarten our teacher would read to us as we sat around her in a semi-circle. She would hold the book on her lap, speak the text on each page, and then turn the book around to show us the pictures. I glanced at them briefly, but I was more compelled by the visual image of the small block of words she had just read, the way the lines from a distance seemed  so neat and even, and how I could predict how large or small that block would appear based on how long our teacher had spoken. If two people or animals in the story spoke to each other, the perfect block would be broken somewhat by something I didn't know then was called indentation. I liked it best when the block of lines was big and perfectly square. And when only one or two straight lines of text appeared on the page, I felt cheated somehow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was this pretty funny book I was reading in study hall. It was pretty good. It was about this bunch of aliens that come down to Earth one day and they're super-advanced technologically. They come in peace and say, "Everyone come aboard our giant ship and take a look around at the marvelous wonders we've invented and whatnot." So people go on and take a look and their eyes bug out because these aliens have invented everything there's left to invent, seriously. They have machines and gadgets that can do everything and their ship travels at about four million miles an hour or some ridiculous number like that. After everybody's seen the ship the aliens keep hanging around, just not doing a whole lot, and after a while people are like, "Um, why are they still here?" They actually get kind of annoying after a while, and people start to notice that they don't talk very well, they're not so good at doing really simple things, and whenever we Earth people try to explain anything to them they zone out and fall asleep. Then this one Harvard guy does all these calculations and figures out that since the aliens have been around for billions more years than Earthlings have, it's no surprise that they've invented all this great stuff. The Harvard guy says that actually, they should be way, way beyond the technology they already have, and that they're really pretty damn stupid, to tell the truth. Just dumb as rocks. So the President has them all wiped out and then we take their ship and start figuring out all that technology, but the whole ship is made so badly we don't learn much of anything. That's how it all starts. I'm about fifty pages in. I'll read the rest of it next study hall.

 

·

 

We were nosing through this used bookstore on Tighe Street and I pulled out a book about golf and this other one fell out onto the floor. I picked it up and started looking through it. It was in the Sports section completely by accident, who knows how it got there. I almost bought it just for the title, Preparations for a Genocide. I read ten pages of it in the store and the rest at home that night. It's a work of fiction, supposedly written by a journalist who spends eight months in an unnamed Asian country as the majority ethnic group there gets ready to wipe out the smallest one. The journalist watches as all the preparations are made over the course of a summer, weapons shipped in, meetings held to decide how to kill the people and when, gigantic prisons and pits and camps constructed in advance, the borders of the country slowly sealed. Meanwhile of course, no one's doing anything to stop it. There's every technical detail you can imagine about how a genocide would be formally organized, even stuff about re-wiring buildings to adjust the electricity to torture people and appraising the value of people's houses so they can tell how much they'll be worth when the houses are taken from them. About halfway through the book there's a scary realization that the journalist writing about this upcoming genocide, which the victims have realized is coming, has no problem at all with what's about to happen. He's completely passive about it all. Then he mentions offhandedly that he's part of the majority ethnic group, and he goes into a long history of the country, the point of which seems to be to explain why the genocide is necessary to cleanse the country. The book ends the week before it's set to begin. The victims are doomed, completely powerless. It's going to be an unimaginable massacre. The journalist's viewpoint is, Well, I wish it didn't have to come to this, but you know, sometimes these things have to happen. It's all written so professionally and rationally you have no idea why he's such a monster.

 

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I read one about a guy who's trying to get over a drug addiction and he's looking for any kind of job, anything. He sees on a bulletin board in the library that someone needs a security guard on his farm, and the pay is pretty good, so he gives the dude a call and goes out for an interview. The farm is way out in the middle of nowhere, and it's not even a working farm. The man who owns it is a software engineer who just liked it so he moved in, and all he wants is someone to wander around the two hundred acres or so all day and keep dogs and kids out of the place, because he has kind of a phobia about people being on the property. He knows it's weird, but that's the way he is. So the recovering drug addict says Sure, I'll do it, and he starts the easiest job in the world, which is wandering the two hundred acres all day. He never sees anybody on the property, either. Never. So he assumes the guy is just nuts, but he'll gladly take his money to get lots of exercise and drift around this great piece of property with its huge fields and stretches of woods and such. Then for a good forty pages it's just this guy's thoughts as he roams and slowly rehabilitates himself, muses about his life and how he got here, and is slowly beating the drug addiction thanks in large part to the peace he finds on that farm. I was okay with that kind of story, I believed it.

      There's some weirdness after about two weeks on the job, though. The guard starts to think he's going nuts because there are things on the landscape that he doesn't remember seeing before, just trees and little slopes, that sort of thing. He thinks they've moved somehow. Then he decides to go over a hill on the border of the property to see what's on the other side, and it's a field that just goes on and on and on into the distance, perfectly level, not even any bumps, and it's lined with perfect rows of trees on either side. The guard walks and walks and it never changes. When he looks down, the grass seems too perfect. Finally he stops and goes back, not knowing what to think. The next day, he goes back to the field and veers off into the woods. The trees are perfectly spaced, and they just seem flawless. Through the trees there's a perfectly round lake, and beyond that a hill that goes up and then slopes down, then goes up and slopes down again, ten or fifteen little slopes, a complete freak of nature.

      Can you figure out what's going on? Yeah, it's not real. The original property is real, but the rest is a virtual reality thing the guy who owns the property is creating and re-creating, and he's hired the guard because he wants someone to unwittingly drift around the property so he can see what effect a human presence will have on it all. He's tricking this poor guard and he doesn't tell him what's going on because he frankly doesn't know what will happen if the guard explores too much or in the wrong place at the wrong time. He watches the guard through a roving camera and realizes that he must know something really bizarre has happened. He didn't expect the guard to roam out so far so soon. Before the guard returns and tells the engineer about what he's seen, the guard becomes trapped in the big field. He keeps walking but it keeps scrolling because there's an unexpected bug in the program. So the engineer has to fix it, and he loses sight of the guard and night comes, then dawn....it takes the engineer two weeks to fix the bug, two weeks of twenty hour days because he's afraid the guard will die, he can't see him or hear him anymore. When it's all ironed out, the guard is just plain gone.

      Then you have the big twist ending which I wasn't crazy about, because it turns out that the engineer himself is part of a game that someone else is playing, a complicated video game called Loss Prevention, where the goal is to keep creating a virtual reality atmosphere that a hired guard won't suspect is fake. The man playing the game is screwing up, he's not good enough, and the guard is catching on, and finally he loses him entirely in the fake part of the farm. I guess it's supposed to be a story about how reality is individual to every person or blah blah blah. It really was better when it was just dealing with the drug addict's thoughts about his life. I give it two and a half stars.

 

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I met a girl at this goth club a couple of weeks ago and she told me I had to read this book, so I bought it, it's just a little paperback. Oh man, let me tell you. This book will mess you up so bad. All I can say is, don't read it in public. Don't read it with anyone around at all.

      The plot is, this guy wins a contest that a local radio station puts on, and they'll give him five hundred dollars if he spends the night in a supposedly haunted house out in the country somewhere. He just has to call the station every couple of hours that night with live reports that go over the air. The whole thing's a joke, but he wants that five hundred so he drives alone one night to the house, which people call the Sex House because of its history. Twenty years before, a writer and his painter wife lived there, and they were total perverts. They had threesomes, they had orgies, they invited people off the street over for sex parties, they got arrested two or three times for having sex in public. Absolutely crazy, these people. Then one day they were found dead in their bed, both of them naked and done up on drugs, and the rumor got out that basically they screwed each other to death, just kept doing it until the guy died of cardiac arrest—he was only about thirty—and then the woman just fell over dead right after that. The house and the property it was on stayed abandoned after that, so of course the myth started that their ghosts haunted the house. The guy that wins the contest, Powell, shows up and the place is totally decrepit and burnt out with all the windows broken and trash everywhere. It's down at the end of a long dirt road, totally cut off. He gets the creeps pretty fast but he goes in with a battery-operated TV (no electricity in the house) and sits on the ripped-up floor (no furniture anymore either) and calls the station from his cell phone to check in, then just waits for the time to pass. It starts to rain and the atmosphere of the house creeps into him. It's described pretty well. So at this point I think the book is just a cool haunted house story, because the back cover doesn't say much otherwise. Well, wait and see. Powell's girlfriend calls him and she tells him she's on her way over to the house to keep him company. He tells her to stay away, that it's against the rules, it's too far, plus it's started to really rain hard, but this girl is kind of nuts, she's a perv and she wants to do it in the house. Plus, she says, she just finished reading a book about the house and she has some spooky stories about it, things Powell didn't realize had happened there. He doesn't want to hear them, he's mad at her and he tells her to stay home but to change his mind she starts telling him what she did that day. And what she does is tell him about this stuff she was doing in the shower to herself, and suddenly she's got him involved in some really hot phone sex. And it's as graphic as you could ever want. My eyes almost fell out of my head. Needless to say, this Powell guy's defenses get broken down real quick as she's talking to him, saying these amazingly filthy things, and not only does he forget about warning her away from the house, but he starts getting the urge to....you know. What he does as she's going on and on with this fantasy she has, is go up the rickety stairs to the bedroom where the writer and his girlfriend were found. And in there is their original bed, still there, nasty and bug-ridden but intact. So because there's nowhere else to lie down, he lies down right there as he's having phone sex and starts to....yeah. He feels really weird about it but he does it anyway. And after he's finished talking to the girl, to Amy, he gets up and gets the hell out of there.

      Well, at that point I knew I had a very interesting book indeed. From there, it only gets better. Powell's sitting in the dark and noticing how the house seems more rotted away than even twenty years should have done when there's a knock at the door. He opens it, and there's a woman there, a gorgeous woman, long black hair, the whole deal. She says she's from down the road and she saw a car and was curious and a little worried because people came to the house sometimes and messed with it. Powell explains to her what the deal is and she laughs and says, Well, if you get attacked by ghosts, I live nearby, just scream. And she leaves after telling him she'll listen to the radio station to hear him give his reports. On her way back to her car she gives him this little look....he thinks it's almost a leer, because there was some flirting going on. He's turned on like you wouldn't believe. The woman is hot, no question about it, a little older than he is, very sophisticated. But she goes. During Powell's second call to the station, the deejay asks him if he's seen anything eerie, and he says Well, no, but I did have a visitor, and he finds himself telling the deejay about how hot the woman was—because he knows she's listening now, see, and he's thinking maybe, just maybe....the thing is, he's not usually a dog like that, but he thinks the vibe inside the house is doing something to him. The place is disgusting and scary but he can't stop thinking about sex.

      Meanwhile, his girlfriend, Amy, is still driving along through the countryside toward the house, and she swerves in the rain to avoid hitting a deer and she gets two flat tires when she goes off the road. The very first car that comes along stops to help her. The guy that gets out of the car is the best-looking guy she's ever seen. Instantly she's thinking about doing him. That's the kind of chick she is. Smart, but always looking for some action. He tells her he'll drive her up the road to wherever she's going because he's got nothing else to do. She says okay, and they start out for the house, and she figures she'll call for a tow with Powell's phone when they get there in about twenty minutes or so. They talk a little, totally flirting.

      Now it's about midnight and the story cuts back to the house, and Powell hears another knock at the door. The place has become the main terminal at Logan International all of a sudden. He opens the door and there's a new woman there, not so sexy, very buttoned-down, a university woman, sort of stern and business-like. She says she's a researcher, she knows about the contest, she just heard about it when Powell came over the radio the second time, and she's there to tell him he should leave the house right away. He just laughs, he doesn't buy this ghost stuff, but she's deadly serious. She's done a lot of research on the writer and the painter who died here. She doesn't believe Powell will actually see anyone tonight, but she does think the house may do something to him, mess him up psychologically in a profound way. The upshot of it all is that everything Powell had ever heard about the people who owned the house is true. Not only were they sex fiends who died screwing each other, but after the house was cleared out, evidence was found that tied them in a very tenuous way to a sex murder that had never been solved. The police always thought from then on that the writer and the painter had abducted a couple of people against their will in the early nineties and done bizarre sexual experiments with them, then killed them. The researcher tells Powell she's been investigating the paranormal for fifteen years and talked to homeless people and teenagers and such who at one point or another had been inside the house for a while, and she believed that enough weird psychic energy had been gathering around the house through its occasional visitors tramping around that something very, very bad was about to happen. Powell still doesn't buy it, and she eventually leaves. And instead of being totally horrified at the prospect of the rain getting heavier and every shadow in the house seeming more and more mysterious, he can't get this university woman out of his head. All he can think of is how she'd be in bed, with her hair not tied up and no glasses on and totally defenseless. He starts having this elaborate fantasy about her, it goes on for two pages. The very fact that she's so sexless makes him want to have sex with her twice as bad. He's pacing around the house, turned on like a madman. So he gets this idea and takes out his cell phone.

      Back on the road, meanwhile, Amy realizes that the hot guy who's driving her to the house is completely into her deal, and they start trading some really suggestive comments. They're maybe five miles from the house when she considers just telling him to pull over and take her. There's one sentence in there that makes you think, though, that there's something up with this guy. Something about his eyes and one little thing he says to her, and also the fact that he seems to know exactly where the house is without having to be told. Amy doesn't even notice.

      While that stuff is going on, Powell calls the university woman as she's ten, fifteen miles away and he tells her he's sorry that he lied a bit when he told her he wasn't worried at all about the house. He tells her about the woman who came to check up on him, and he tells the researcher that since that first woman left, he's had an almost uncontrollable urge to have sex. The researcher asks him to tell her more, and he decides to get kind of explicit. And he does this just to mess with her head. It's like having phone sex with this woman. He tells her he can't control his thoughts suddenly, and that while they were just standing there talking fifteen minutes before, he couldn't stop himself from becoming totally aroused, and he kept having unwelcome visual flashes of the two of them doing it on the bed upstairs. Powell keeps saying how sorry he is to be so graphic, but he's freaked out. He even throws in something about how he wanted to do her in these violent ways that he had never even dreamed of before. And of course it's half a lie, he just wants a sexual thrill from talking this way to her and seeing how she responds. Of course she's still really icy, and at one point he goes too far, he says something really nasty, and she hangs up on him. But he loved it, drawing her into this conversation about how some invisible force was making him want to do all this stuff to her. But then he realizes that it really was only half a lie, that some of those thoughts, as disturbing as they were, did really come to him. He had imagined himself basically raping this woman and she loving it and screaming and when it was over throwing her out into the rain. The house is obviously inside him somehow now, and he suspects it and wants to go home, but he has to wait for Amy. He figures if she's here he'll be all right and as soon as he makes that last phone call to the station they can get the hell out of there.

      Well, Amy and the guy who picked her up do get to the house, but she tells him to stop halfway up the long dirt road, which they can barely even see because of the rain. She makes her move on this guy, figuring it's now or never, and he responds to it. So there they are, making out, getting more and more into it just a couple of hundred yards away from where Powell is, out of sight, blocked by the trees.

      As it's getting really intense with them in the car, Powell gets one last visit. It's that first woman who visited him. She's come back. She doesn't even knock this time. She comes right in. She thought he might be bored so she brought over some wine. That's pretty much all it takes for Powell to start obsessing over having sex with her. Plus she's changed her clothes and she's wearing these tight pants and a revealing shirt. They exchange a few words and she tells him her name, and when Powell hears it he has this horrible shiver run down his back, because he thinks—he can't be totally sure—that it's the same name as the painter who died in the house. His mind is in such a state, he can't remember, so he asks the woman if it's true, and she says she doesn't know what that woman's name was. He's staring at her, she's a little wet from the rain, drinking this glass of wine, and eventually she shocks him half to death by telling him she's always wanted to seduce someone in this house. The book cuts from her saying that right to the car where Amy and her new friend have started to do it, they're having sex, and it's so intense that after going at it in the back seat the guy pulls her out of the car and takes her into the rain and they rip each other's clothes off and start doing it in the grass where Powell could probably see them if he looked out. Amy doesn't care, she's having the best sex she's ever had, totally animalistic, and it goes on and on, five pages, six pages, God knows how long. The guy gets rougher and rougher with her. Doesn't matter to Amy. She digs it. She's naked, getting rolled around in the rain and the grass like a crazy person, until in the end the guy actually hits her, once, in the face, which shocks her bad and sort of snaps her out of it. The guy on top of her looks totally possessed by something and not even able to control himself. Inside the house, the woman's taken Powell upstairs into the bedroom, which seems twice as creepy and filthy as it was before. He's ready to go, he doesn't care that Amy is due to arrive at any minute, doesn't care that he missed his next phone call to the radio station. He thinks he'll die if he doesn't have sex with this amazing woman. But then she starts saying things. Things about the writer and the painter who died, how what she'd really like is to be them and have sex like they did, and she talks about the fantasy she's had since she read about them a long time ago, and it seems to Powell that she has way too many exact details about what their lives were like, she might be nuts, but she's got him half undressed and she's walking around the bed real seductively while he lies on top of it, and then out of nowhere she starts talking to him as if he's really the dead writer and she's really the dead painter. She's saying the things she wants done to her tonight, and she gets such a scary look in her eyes that Powell believes it all suddenly, he believes this woman is a ghost, and that she's a murderer. And he's paralyzed, he wants to get away but his lust is so extreme he just lies there, wanting it. He's completely suspended his concern for his life out of overwhelming lust. The thing is, as you're reading this, if you're a guy, you've suspended it too because it's so intense, the desire for this woman. And what the book does is make you feel so helpless by this point that you realize how weak you are, how you might gamble with your life too if you were put into that spot. You see that you may think you're a logical human male, but in the end, you'll do anything, risk anything, for an experience with a woman that seductive. So Powell loses it and pulls her down to him and the sex starts, absolutely the most phenomenally described sex scene ever, but while it's happening there's also stuff about the graffiti on the walls someone left and the filth encrusted on the windows and the spiders in the corner and how Powell thinks this could be the end of his very life. It could be that this woman is just sick, that she has this dark fantasy of being that painter woman, or that she's really a ghost, it's impossible to tell.

      All the sex eventually ends. Amy out there in the grass is wiped out, and so is Powell. They're nothing more than bodies drained of everything. They both sort of pass out, and when they wake up  their lovers are gone. Amy is lying totally naked in the rain, and she gets up and just kind of wanders up to the house. The fact that the guy vanished makes her feel like she finally went too far and became something kind of unclean. Powell gets up off the bed and comes down the stairs, feeling like he just played dice with his life, and it was all over a half hour of lust. So they finally see each other, just before dawn. They're different people now because of what happened to them, they've seen what lust can do to someone. The last paragraph of the book is about how they couldn't be with each other a single day after that, they just had to go their separate ways without saying much of anything, and then a year or so later Powell sent her a book with the pictures of the writer and the painter in it, because he finally needs to know if those people came back as ghosts that night and had sex with them. But Amy can't ever bring herself to open the book and look at the photos, and neither can Powell. So they never, ever know.

      Like I said, if you want to read it, read it alone and, ah, be prepared, because Jesus Christ, the sex is huge. Don't read it late at night, either. Too scary.

 

·

 

Joyce at work is always giving me books to read. I mentioned exactly one time that I occasionally, just occasionally, like to read odd things, and since then she's been forcing these insane books on me all the time. Last week she topped herself. I have to give her credit for this one. She walked into my office and gave me a novel that had the front and back cover ripped off. She said she didn't want to ruin it by me knowing what it was about. I took it home and started reading. The very first page of the book shows the starting roster of the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a list of all the players. I thought, Okayyyyyy....then the novel begins, it's in this strange oral history format cut up with newspaper articles and diary entries and so forth, and it starts to track the miserable failure of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their first season in existence, remember when they went 0-14 and scored about fifty points the whole season? In the book people are reminiscing about how awful they were, it's really funny, there's articles about their lousiness, there's a box score in there from a game....then the book focuses in on one man in particular, a guy who's not even a sports fan, a very strange guy named Sinpath Freer. Sinpath Freer gets an idea one day eight weeks into the season that he's going to get down on the ground and log-roll his way across the state until the Buccaneers win a game. And he does it. He goes outside, lies down on his side, and begins to roll. This guy has no real friends, no family to speak of, people barely know of him, he's just a cashier in a hardware store somewhere, but the next thing anybody knows, he's rolling along like a crazy person across Florida. He's dressed all in orange and red, the team colors of the Bucs, and he rolls across roads and farms and parking lots, going about fifty yards and stopping, fifty more and stopping, because the dizziness factor is rather big.

      People in the novel are reminiscing about their brief encounters with this freak as he rolls across the state that first week, and talking about how weirdly he spoke, and how Sinpath Freer said he was "changing the world" or some such. This is interspersed with passages from the diary he kept when he was rolling. Suddenly the book's not really a comedy anymore because it becomes more and more obvious that the guy is kind of disturbed. When he's done rolling for the day he writes about how he's doing the greatest thing ever, which is summon the will of one human being to raise up an entire team of men. He believes that his dedication and sacrifice is so great that karma will have no choice but to alter the future of the Buccaneers. Then he writes about how inside the heart of every man is a quest waiting to be born, and until it's born and pursued, that man does not truly exist. You have to have a quest and you have to act on it, and the only acceptable outcomes are complete success or death.

      Freer rolls and rolls and the Buccaneers, meanwhile, as you know because their part of the story is completely true, keep losing. They're just terrible. Furthermore, they couldn't care less about this Freer weirdo, they've never even heard of him, and no one else has either. He reads the paper as he rolls and keeps believing it's only a matter of time before the Bucs have to win—the force of his effort dictates it! Meanwhile, the Atlantic Ocean keeps getting closer and closer and his diary gets more and more fragmented and disturbing to read. He veers off into bizarre topics, stuff about God and Buddhism and politics and biology, the kind of things it's painful to read when you realize the person writing it desperately needs help, and right around the time the Bucs lose game number twelve, the diary becomes almost impossible to understand, because Freer has obviously gone totally insane.

      The ending of the book cuts back and forth between Tampa Bay's final game and the way they can see the writing on the wall but keep fighting anyway, even as they're getting beaten, and Sinpath Freer's thoughts as he gets within a half mile of the Atlantic Ocean. It's impossible to even follow the train of his thinking by then, but you can figure out it has something to do with the fact that he's insane but happy, because in dying he'll enter into history in a way he couldn't have if he had succeeded, just like the '76 Buccaneers will somehow always be more special in people's memories than even the team  that won the Super Bowl. Their failure and his failure are both so cataclysmic that neither one of them can be forgotten. So in the end Sinpath Freer believes he's immortal. The last page is this kind of funny, kind of tragic, kind of pretty description of him rolling right into the waves and disappearing as the Buccaneers drag themselves off the field after the final gun of the season goes off and they're 0-14. The sun eventually goes down and Freer is gone forever beneath the ocean.

      As far as sports novels go, I would say it's definitely one of the odder ones out there.

 

·

 

I was at Sam's birthday party and Wesley gave her a really funny book for a present. We were all looking through it for a half hour or so. It was a coffee table book, just color photographs, no text at all. It was called Dollar Store of the Damned: America's Ugliest Strip Malls. And that's exactly, precisely what it was. The author, this woman, she drove around the country taking pictures of the saddest, nastiest, ugliest strip malls there are. The best one in there was of an almost completely deserted strip mall somewhere in Utah. All the stores had gone out of business except for two: a discount pharmacy, and the exact same pharmacy four doors down. I guess the company was closing one as they opened the other. In between them, everything else was boarded up. And I swear, I've seen some uglier ones than are even in the book. Come drive with me to Upper Marlboro sometime. Bring a camera.

 

·

 

The best book of photographs I ever saw was just called Break Room. It was, I don't know, sixty, seventy pages, and on each page was a photo of an actual empty break room at some company or in the back of some store somewhere. They're all completely sad. The photographer didn't even have to do anything with the lighting or put fake props in there. You'd think after you've looked at four or five of these pictures you'd be done, but the cumulative effect of turning page after page and seeing all these bleak break rooms is pretty amazing. It makes you not just want to quit your job immediately, it makes you want to track down and kill the people who employed you.

 

·

 

The funniest book I've ever read was about a man who won the lottery, and he decided not only to never work again, but to spend most of what he made buying all the businesses where he used to toil for minimum wage and shut them down out of spite. He also spent thousands of dollars on billboards defaming the companies he couldn't legally buy or which were too expensive to buy, and he got into a bunch of lawsuits because of them, and he finally lost the last of his money trying to buy a landscaping company where he worked for three weeks ten years before and which he despised because they always shorted him on his breaks. He was so wrapped up in his hatred for the time he lost slaving away for other people that he finally went bankrupt trying to redeem it. In the end he became homeless instead of going back to work, and jumped out of an airplane without opening his parachute, and tried to land on the offices of the landscaping company, but missed by about a hundred feet.

 

·

 

I got a book from the library called The Masterpiece Project. It was written, or I should say compiled, by a writer who was never able to get anything published, so he decided he'd let other writers write a book for him. He started out with a single sentence: "Markbit hated every kind of fish known to man, but the only thing left to eat inside the apartment was a can of salmon, so he faced his destiny calmly and with dignity." He wrote it down and then started driving all over Chicago finding writers who would tell him where the story went next, without actually bothering to flush it out in prose. Over the course of six months he tried to find everyone who had ever published any kind of fiction and sat down with them and said, "Okay, what happens next?" The entire book consists of  transcript after transcript of his conversations with the people who tried to  further the story line. They were given absolutely no limits. They were just told what generally had happened so far and then given a half hour or so to muse on it and suggest the next few plot points. Needless to say, after talking to sixty-eight different writers, the story of this guy Markbit went in a thousand different places, the genre kept changing, he went into outer space, got married, started a civil war, came back to Earth, got a botched sex change operation, bought a McDonald's franchise which burned down, became a spy and finally died, at which point the story just kept going with new characters. The story itself was completely ridiculous but it was kind of funny to read the conversations with the writers and see how their thought processes skewed things. Meanwhile the guy who came up with the original sentence is having coffee with every single one of them, meeting dozens of people and obviously having a lot of fun, and the best part for him is that he never has to sit in front of the computer and write anything. The book ends with no conclusion to the story in sight.

 

·

 

I had to look the word caesura up after I finished reading the last book I read. It was the title.  The definition did make sense in terms of the story. It took place almost entirely in a hospital, it was about a not-quite-successful novelist, a real young guy, thirty maybe, who's stuck basically living in the hospital because as he was driving across the country with his girlfriend, she had a heart attack and fell into a coma. It was a terrible congenital thing. Every day the writer kills time in the small town where the hospital is, waiting to see if his girlfriend will ever wake up, and it happens that this town they were going through is just a few miles away from where the writer grew up, a place he doesn't really ever want to see again. He calls a lot of old friends whose lives all seem to be stagnating, he plays with kids on the street. There are flashbacks which reveal that he's a strict free spirit, and he actually "kidnapped" this girl from her parents' house where she was living and ran away with her. Even though she was twenty-five, she was really attached to her folks and he forcibly broke her from them for her own good, and then the girl's father tried to track them down again and again until he finally gave up. The girl was very happy with the writer but there was always this sense that they were doing something wrong, and her relationship with her parents had been severed. Then, in the hospital, the writer is forced to call them and tell them what happened, and the novel actually begins with him waiting in the hospital lobby for them to come in from their car with their ten year old son, dreading it and wishing he could fly away and vanish forever. When it finally comes to the scene where he speaks with them, it's just brutally awkward and painful. It's tough to read.

      The theme that ran through the book is about how it's one thing to believe you value the time you have on earth and another thing to really act on that. The writer took the girl away from her parents because he thought they were keeping her from being the things she could be, and they started driving across country to get away from people who were stealing his time away from him. Every day he spends waiting in the hospital is agony for him, both because of his grief and the sense that all the time they rescued for themselves by running away toward some unspecified goal has been lost. Another theme is the question of how much we owe to other people when our lives have stopped because of them, or if they're no longer with us. What eventually happens is that the girlfriend dies one night, just passes away quietly. The writer goes into her room, sits with her for twenty minutes or so, then in a daze he walks out to his car, takes her luggage out, goes back inside the hospital and places it all just outside her room. Then he goes back out to the car, gets in....and drives away. He just leaves. He makes the choice to go forward right then and there, putting himself above everything else in the world. At first I thought it was a horrible thing to do, but looking back through the book, I saw that maybe he did what we all yearn to do when we're stuck in that weird twilight zone where we desperately want to leave a lot of agony behind but it's not deemed acceptable to do it by the people around us. To make them happy and not be cast as a pariah, we put ourselves through some awful rituals and sacrifices because of it. Not this guy, though. So it's sort of a think-about-it book. Very sad.

 

·

 

Speaking of photography books, have you seen this one which is filled with pictures of the most beautiful women who live in the smallest, most nowhere towns in the country? It has a clever title, I forget what it is. Here these women are, they're just amazingly, hauntingly lovely, and for whatever reason their lives are mostly confined to tiny burgs and the outside world never gets to see these knockouts. They're interviewed about why they never left or  how they wound up there. I can't say I understand the point of it all, but it's interesting. How did they find these women? How did that work?

 

·

 

About ten years ago, I had a very strange experience. I was walking around New Brunswick because I had an overnight layover there. My next train was leaving in the afternoon and I was just killing time, so I went into a coffeehouse for an hour or so. They had a little bookcase full of random books people had brought in and left there, or that the owner had put there, mostly for show, but obviously anyone was welcome to browse through them and take one down. I had nobody to talk to so I started looking though the stacks. There was a book that had been stapled together with no real cover, and that intrigued me, so I picked it up thinking it was going to be a chapbook of some local's poetry, and why not look through it if they had gone to the trouble of putting it there in the hopes someone would read it. But it wasn't poetry at all. It was about a hundred pages of handwriting, all block capitals running across every page, almost as if it were someone's diary. There was a title which I forget, and no author's name, and then the writing began. I read some of it there in the coffeehouse and when I left I did something I don't think I've ever done before: I deliberately stole a book. I just had to read the rest of it on the train.

      The hundred pages of writing detailed one thing and one thing only: the destruction of the Earth over the course of fourteen or fifteen hours, beginning with a series of earthquakes under the Indian Ocean, causing a chain reaction which broke apart the foundations of the planet hundreds of miles deep. This led to total sudden global upheaval, fires, volcanoes, violent storms, all as the world literally broke into five pieces and eventually spun off into space, killing every living thing on it, all during one day in April. There were no characters. There was no dialogue. There were paragraph breaks only every page or two. It was entirely a this-happened-then-that-happened-then-this-happened account of the end, going back and forth across the globe as it all occurred, telling about the collapse of buildings and entire cities, the wiping out of continents, the panic of animals, the geologic implosion....all of it just so immense and horrifying and swift that it was almost impossible to read. The fact that it was written anonymously, in one person's hand, made it far worse, plus the fact that the science of it all seemed to be pretty heavily researched, even if it was completely speculative. The book ended with a description of the silence that followed the last parts of Earth drifting through space, as if the planet had been nothing more than a space shuttle that broke up and became nothing due to a freak accident. Fifteen hours of apocalypse and all of human history was gone.

      I finished the book on the train and I kept it for two years. I never showed it to anyone. And then I lost it somehow. Last year I was in New Brunswick on business and I happened to remember what street that coffeehouse was on and I went back to it but the place wasn't even there anymore.

 

·

 

Okay, you want creepy? I found this book once when I was poking through that dented-up cart they always keep outside Tabbinger's for stuff that's seventy-five percent off. It starts with a teenaged kid finding a bunch of old photographs in his grandfather's study when they clear it out after he dies. The photos show a gigantic empty steel room with no windows and only one door, and nothing inside of it at all. There's bloodstains on the floor and the walls, and the stains are in different places in almost every photo. What happened was, during World War II the U.S. had a top secret project going on to develop a type of nuclear bomb that was twice as powerful as a normal one but didn't leave any radiation behind. And the government thought they were getting close to having it thanks to one man, a scientist named Randolf. He was working obsessively on it and had been for two years. Here's the thing with Randolf, though: he was totally, homicidally insane. They knew it but because he was so brilliant they had no choice but to deal with him. Unless he was given a chance to vent his sick impulses on a regular basis, though, he would at some point get lethargic and unproductive and go into a stupor. They tried to insinuate drugs into his food but they didn't do anything. He needed to kill something. The psychiatrist who kept an eye on him, surreptitiously, told the people running the weapon program that basically they had a serial killer on their hands. He couldn't even have any assistants around him, he was so dangerous. Randolf lived in this government facility voluntarily because they gave him everything he could ask for, but after a while they lived in fear of what would happen if he wanted out even for a day. He was an animal, an animal with a freaky super-brain who could play piano like Beethoven and had a total mastery of physics. And he was getting scarier every day. One conversation led to another and it was decided to, you know, give him a dog here and there to kill, literally kill with his bare hands. After he did this he would get into a surge of productivity and he was sure he would have this bomb finished within months. But after a while, the dogs he killed didn't do it for him....so then the head of the project hired another psychiatrist, one who thought the scientist's case file was describing a purely hypothetical human being, and this psychiatrist floated the idea to construct a room where the scientist could be put once a month or so, and they'd have someone go out into the inner city with a van and pick up a homeless person who no one would miss....well, I didn't say the book was plausible or any good even, I just said it was creepy. The real mystery is how much the grandfather in the story, the one who kept the photographs, was involved with the program. Turns out he was one of the men who had to go out looking for the homeless people. One night in 1943, when the scientist refused to work anymore unless he could go out himself looking for victims, they decided they just had to kill him instead, they'd have to risk the project because the ramifications of what was going on were getting too great. But he outsmarts them (a genius, remember) and escapes the facility....

      To this day, I have this feeling that I wandered off with that book and never paid for it. I seem to remember reading the first few pages as I stood beside the cart and never actually going into the store.

 

·

 

I read a book once about a man and a woman who work for a huge pizza chain, they work in the taste lab at corporate headquarters and they're the ones who are under constant brutal pressure to come up with new pizza concepts. They're stressed to the limit twelve months a year trying to figure out some new damn way to jazz up pizza with topping combinations and new cheese patterns and so forth. They both have advanced degrees in chemistry and such and this is where they wound up. They fall in love eventually, it's a comedy. The book's out of print. I'm pretty sure it was called The Difficult Lives of the Pizza Scientists. It got thrown out accidentally. I wish I still had it, it was amusing. There was a great scene where they've completely run out of ideas so they start seriously experimenting with just serving the pizza upside down and calling it "The Tijuana" for no particular reason. I still remember that part.

 

·

 

I went to a yard sale last week and came away with some good finds. You know how they have lots of books like The Making of Such-and-Such where it's a journal of the shooting of a movie with all the behind-the-scenes stuff and tons of stills? Like they had one for Titanic and Batman Begins. Well, I bought one that was exactly that, a glossy thing complete with color photos, except what it was seriously documenting was some movie two guys shot with their parents' video camera in their back yard. They were trying to make a horror movie and the book is completely serious. But it's hilarious. All the problems they had, the little fights, and then they have the "storyboards" in there, which are just little stick drawings in a notebook, plus the accounts of the "production delays", which were mostly caused by the fact that they had to wait for their paychecks to clear so they could go out and buy thirty dollars worth of videotape. The kicker is that they finished shooting this piece of garbage after ten or twelve weeks of shooting an hour here and an hour there between playing Risk, then they had no way to edit it because they couldn't afford the computer hardware, and at some point in time they just lost interest in the whole thing and it was never completed. How perfect that I found the book at a yard sale. Fifty cents.

 

·

 

It wasn't a book, really, it was a play. I was going through the stacks at the college trying to find something suitable for my dialogue project for acting class and I dug out a musty old book called Modern Plays for Modest Budgets because it had ten different plays in it, and I figured there'd be something in there I could use. It was pretty old, it was published in 1961. The second play in there was called Men Against Women. I started leafing through it because of the title. The whole play takes place in the year 2007 in a huge meeting hall where men and women have been summoned to take part in the debate to end all debates, which is to decide once and for all which sex has to leave the planet entirely for the sake of world peace. They've finally just plain had it with each other, they can't stand the sight of each other anymore. It's like they've decided to break up collectively, the entire world. One by one, men and women alternate coming up to the podium with prepared arguments, and one by one they absolutely lay into the opposite sex with every possible complaint and gripe everyone has ever had. Men complain about how long women take to get ready to go out and how they like things too clean, and women scream back at them for being selfish and obsessed with cars and westerns, etcetera. They start out fairly civilized but it breaks down fast. It gets funnier and funnier and more and more vicious, with profanity I didn't even think they had back then. The whole debate has to be declared null and void at the end because it's discovered the two lead debaters, the main woman and the main man, started making out backstage. All those vicious insults completely turned them on and they couldn't keep their hands off each other. I decided to look the play up online and see if it was ever actually performed. No record of it. No record of the author except for one other play he wrote, also which there's no record of. Even the publisher of Modern Plays for Modest Budgets is extinct. For all I know, no one ever put this play onstage once. I am so tempted to pass it off in Playwriting 2 as my own. Who's ever going to know?

 

·

 

The worst book I ever read was a self-published thing that I bought from the library off their 25 cent shelf. I had a collection of bad self-published books for a while but I finally got rid of it. The king of them all was called Comedy Graveyard. In it, a man gets an inheritance of a million dollars from his aunt and with part of it he opens up a cemetery just for people who died in embarrassing and funny ways. The reason he decides to do this? Never really explained. The reason why anyone would want to be buried there? Never explained. Typographical errors? About five per page.

 

 ·

 

For years, I had a novel in the back of my mind because I wanted to buy a copy of it before it went out of print. I just kept putting it off and putting it off until it was too late. Part of the book was based on a story I actually heard about on the news once. A man was called and told that his son had died in a car crash. As he drove to the hospital, wanting to die himself, he passed the site of a different car crash that had taken place just ten minutes before. He recognized his other son's car, destroyed, and knew right away that he had been killed as well. The two crashes were completely unrelated. When the father realized what had happened, he blacked out. His mind snapped and went into utter shutdown, the way it does so often for people involved in sudden devastating accidents. They don't remember any of what really happened to them. When he awoke, he didn't remember the last three days of his life. His mind was protecting him.

      But it did more than that. The trauma to his psyche had been so crushing, and came at such an enormous speed, that his brain suffered a permanent imbalance, an enormous jolt that had a side effect that no one had ever heard of: it doubled his intelligence. Over the course of the next few years, he slowly found that his cognitive abilities were light years ahead of what they had been before the trauma. He became creatively brilliant. Instead of just writing occasional travel articles for magazines, which is what he used to do for a living, he found himself bombarded by ideas for novels and plays, and he was able to finish them all, and they were all terrific. The creative part of his brain was completely set free. He was smarter in other ways, too, he could feel it, so he had his IQ tested and it was well into the genius range, far higher than he had tested in college. The tragic part came when he started to use his genius to write a long, long novel about grief. He was still devastated by the loss of his sons, and he just couldn't get past it. He kept working and working on a massive epic novel about a man who suffered tragedy after tragedy, and it consumed him, and his publisher thought it was amazing and kept after him to finish it, but he couldn't. It got to be more than fifteen hundred pages long before his wife saw what was happening. He was losing it. She made him stop writing and go into heavier therapy. In the end, the man just couldn't drown out the depression he suffered over what had happened eight years before. No amount of brilliance in the world made up for it. So he committed suicide, never having finished his final novel. The whole story was told as a flashback by a doctor who was assigned to write up the man's case for a medical journal.

      I liked the book enough to think about it from time to time, and I really did mean to actually buy it instead of just checking it out of the library again. Then last year I was in Barnes and Noble and I saw the title jump out at me from the shelf, and I went to grab a copy, but the cover was a movie tie-in thing with the face of some actor I don't like. It was coming out as a movie made for cable. That changed everything. Somehow not having a copy with the original cover, which I had really liked, ruined it for me. I couldn't look at it in the same way. The original can't be gotten anymore for any kind of reasonable price. I suppose I'll never own it now.

 

·

 

I tried to read this book which had a fairly good premise, it switches back and forth between three different policemen in three different time periods of American history. The first cop is a homicide detective today, the second is his great-grandfather who's a beat cop during the Depression, the third is his great-grandfather, who's the chief of police in some small town during the Civil War. You see how they each did their jobs and how they're very similar in some ways because of the family bloodline. They each have to deal with a huge case that has some intriguing similarities with the ones the other men have to deal with. So, not a bad idea. But this book was eleven hundred pages long, and every few days I would put it down and think, Okay, this is good, but not good enough to throw my life away on. It got a little bit weaker as it went on, just incrementally, and every day I would think, No more, I'm done, but I kept getting closer and closer to the end and for the sake of closure I kept bulling my way through it. Finally though, I was within fifty pages of the end and I just said, Enough—what am I trying to prove by finishing this book? So I didn't. I read over a thousand pages and I refused to do the last fifty. I took a stand!

 

·

 

What I really like is science fiction. There was one I read about a psychologist who worked for years and years on the problem of recovering very old memories, like when people need to remember things from long ago for court testimony, etcetera. He started to find that certain verbal cues aligned certain functions of the brain, for example when I say "tomato", it causes a very certain microscopic adjustment in your mind, and if I say "ripe tomato", bang, there again in the blink of an eye there's another tiny change so it can figure out what a ripe tomato is, and because I said "ripe tomato" it has something to work with and starts anticipating certain words that might go with it, so there's another change, etcetera. The psychologist eventually found that by making eight very specific statements to a person in a specific sequence, it would align their thought functions perfectly so that when a question was asked at the end, their synapses or whatever they're called would be in perfect alignment to access the functions of their deepest memory. The statements that set it all up were almost all nonsensical, like "Oranges and lemons may not into a bucket fall" and "Presidential material was what the Pope demanded." But by saying them out loud and in sequence, the human brain which heard them would shift and position itself step by step just the way they needed it to. With this technique the psychologist could recover any memory from any person he wanted, no matter how old they were. The memories just rolled off their tongue nine times out of ten. But to the tenth person, something terrible sometimes happened. The person would lock up and not be able to speak for hours or days or weeks, and sometimes they retreated entirely into an eerie autistic shell. Some people never came out of it, never. All they had done was listen to eight simple statements. While the psychologist tried to figure out what could have caused  this, a foreign government learned about the research and duplicated it on their own. And as soon as they saw its power, they began to develop it as a psychological weapon.

      I heard they're going to make a movie out of that book. I'm sure they're going to throw out all the subtlety and the moral dilemmas brought up in it and focus on some kind of distracting special effects. I'll be avoiding that one.

 

·

 

A book did change my life once. I changed some things in my life because of it. It got into me. I couldn't stop thinking about it and after a while I realized it wasn't because of the writing but because so much of it was about me. There were two main characters in the story, and the painful part was that they were both me.

      The first one was a reporter for a small newspaper in Tempe, who had won a lot of prizes in college for his writing before he started drinking and generally screwing things up for himself. As the story begins, he's about thirty-seven and writing high school sports columns and human interest garbage for the paper and hating life. One of his regular gigs is also to keep tabs on who the oldest current resident of the area is and to interview them. Whenever another very old person dies it's left to the reporter, Maurice is his name, to research who's the next oldest and track them down in order to ask the same tired, obvious questions you always know are going to be asked.

      One day Maurice is going about the research to prepare for the next interview. He finds out there's a one hundred and four year old man living within fifty miles of the city, but when he digs for an address, he's confused, because it seems that the man is in a state prison. Maurice makes some calls and finds out that he has the right guy, but the age is completely wrong. The man they have locked up in prison is ninety-four, not one hundred and four. It was Maurice himself who made the stupid mistake. But he's totally intrigued and thinks he can at least write a good human interest story about this man, whose name is Harvey. He finds out that Harvey's been in jail for forty-five years for a botched bank robbery which ended in two tellers being killed. Maurice gets the okay from his editor and drives out to the prison to interview this man who everyone's forgotten about. His angle will be what it's like to be truly elderly in jail.

      When Harvey is brought out to talk to Maurice, Maurice learns his  story, which is pretty incredible. He gets the rest of it from the other prisoners on Maurice's block, who he also eventually talks to. Harvey doesn't profess his innocence or anything like that, because he knows exactly what he did. What's fascinating about him is that while he could probably have gotten out on parole some time ago, he always refuses the hearings and has since the eighties. Though Harvey won't admit to it, Maurice figures out that this man is simply deeply afraid of the world outside the prison. He has no family left, and more interviews and talks with the prisoners who help Harvey out with the day to day tasks he can't manage on his own reveal that he was never very bright, he's easily controlled, and his adaptation to prison life has been total. The prison's former assistant warden and his Harvey's old lawyer tell Maurice that some of this was probably due to his intense shame at the crime he committed, and they recall how his mind seemed to dim noticeably and permanently when he went to jail. The other prisoners over the years had surprising fondness for Harvey, who wanted nothing more than to live out his days surrounded by people he knew. Former prisoners even visited him. He read and watched TV and kept a small garden, and inside the prison it was simply accepted that he preferred to stay inside all his life, with good reason. There was nothing outside of it that he could deal with.

      Something in Harvey strikes a deep chord in Maurice, whose own life has slipped away from him. He leaves the newspaper article aside and he starts working on Harvey, trying to convince him to know what freedom in the world beyond is like, just a little bit before the end of his life. At first Harvey won't even listen to the idea, but gradually he's worn down, and it becomes more and more obvious that he really does wonder what it would be like to be free. His fear, though, of what lies outside his walls is immense. He would have nowhere to go and nothing to be. The smallest tasks seem impossibly intimidating to him. Finally Maurice convinces Harvey to at least allow the next parole hearing to go forward. Maurice visits him again and again over the course of four months until that hearing. And Harvey is granted parole. Maurice is intensely happy. He feels alive for the first time in years, his life validated by being able to help one man be free again. He tells Harvey that he can live with him until they find him a permanent place to spend his final days.

      The news of Harvey's parole is the high point of the story. What comes after that is really sad. On the day of Harvey's release, he breaks down and fights like a small child to stay in jail, weeping and longing to die. When Maurice does get him to leave and stand in the middle of the city as a free man, Harvey hates it and behaves poorly. For the first few days he's sullen and hard to handle, as if the rest of his intelligence disappeared instantly when he left jail behind. Maurice basically has to watch him all the time, and soon he has to take a leave of absence from work. The small joys Harvey experiences are more than offset by tantrums, crying jags, and a lot of mounting health problems. Within a month or so, Maurice almost can't bear to be around Harvey anymore, because he's become little more than a churlish, senile old man who disagrees with everything around him. There is no magic to his freedom, no happy finale to his life.

      Harvey gets moved into an elder care facility eventually, and Maurice actually attempts to get him back into the prison where he can be happy, but it's just too great an impossibility. He's the only one who visits Harvey once a week, watching the old man decline, sometimes apologizing to him, but more often just listening to his petty gripes and regrets. Maurice sinks deeper and deeper into a depression.

      In the last six months of his life, Harvey comes into contact with a very old woman with dementia who moves into the facility. Almost right away, she mistakes him for a movie star she used to idolize long ago, and she can't be broken of this belief. She looks at him in awe, and her children are happy to see that she's deeply smitten despite how strange and empty it really is. Harvey seems to take a small bit of pleasure in the woman's attention, though he mocks her openly sometimes. It doesn't matter to her. Not once until Harvey's death does she believe he's anything other than a star she's finally gotten to meet and then share her life with. When Harvey passes away, with Maurice at his bedside, she cries silently and doesn't speak of him again.

      Maurice returns to the newspaper eventually, and the last pages of the book follow his thoughts as he tries to take what happiness he can from Harvey and his ordeal. He thinks he'll try for the rest of his life to decide once and for all whether he was involved in a story of great hope or crushing mortality. He needs it to be one or the other. The gray areas scare him as much as the outside world scared Harvey.

      I saw myself in them both, over and over again. Since I read that book, I keep seeing Harvey in everybody. I can't help it.

      You know what, there was something else in that book that affected me. It was a little subplot, almost not even a subplot, about the fifth oldest man in the prison, who's fifty-seven. The other prisoners talk about him but Maurice never gets to meet him. The guy was a doctor who had been in jail for six years for a murder he probably didn't really commit, and while he kept trying to prove his innocence he also developed a theory that he could still live a meaningful life if he just kept challenging himself in the same ways he used to challenge himself in the outside world. He had been trying to visit almost every country on Earth when he lost his freedom, so what he does in this enormous prison is set a long-term goal to keep "exploring" new territory inside it.  He sets his sights on areas of the prison where he's not allowed to go, the off-limits rooms, the wings prisoners never see, and one by one, he marks them off as he achieves them, making his "destinations" more and more difficult. He doesn't count a place in the prison as "visited" unless he can get there without being caught. After two years of constant planning and two or three successful explorations, he writes in his letters to his family that there's absolutely no difference between the moments of happiness he gets from achieving a new level of travel inside the prison and the feeling he used to get landing in a new foreign country. From this he deduces that as long as a human being can keep challenging himself on any level throughout his life, he can have a tolerable one no matter what his circumstances are.

      You'd think I'd read that part and take some heart in it, but no, I found it almost as depressing as what happened to Harvey and I thought about it for a long time. Hours and hours spent ruminating on fictional human beings. But they would up changing me more than I think therapy would have. It happens, I guess.

 

·

 

One day a man invents a new color. An entirely new color which no one had ever seen. He's able to do this because of some new industrial process that extracts a certain element out of tungsten or something, and by hitting what's left with UV light he's able to slowly create a paint-like substance that has a color that's entirely new to the world. In the book people try to describe it and they just can't do it of course, it's like nothing previously known. The man who invented the color calls it Lillinandra. What happens is that the world is changed in all sorts of ways by the new color when it's able to be mass-produced. You can imagine. Fashion is completely thrown for a loop because everyone wants to have things in that color, both for itself and for the way it sets off other colors, and of course interior design is rocked pretty well too. In the art world, Lillinandra makes a huge impact because it can be used to depict sunlight in a completely new way, and people's complexions too, and because the paint is so expensive in the beginning, art that uses Lillinandra is more coveted and higher-priced.

      What the book's really about, though, is the dark side of what happens when this great gift is given to the world, because the legal ramifications are just astounding. There's court battles over whether the inventor has the rights to the color, how much money he deserves from every little use of it, whether it can be used on flags, on the jerseys of sports teams, on corporate things, how much the industrial process that can create it needs to be tied in with all the profits, whether or not any human being can claim any ownership of any aspect of color even though its inventor worked for years to create it. There's even a lawsuit to stop a hate group from using the color for its logo. Then it turns out that the process by which Lillinandra is made actually produces a very harmful substance when the color is extracted in its last stage, and there are groups who want to stop it from being made. All the while you see how Lillinandra impacts every little facet of life, the mood it creates in people and the associations that become tied up with it like the way black means sadness and red means anger and so forth. Because it's a neutral color like green, different people have different takes on what it should "mean," and because so much money is at stake in the world over how it's perceived, it gets spun and spun in print and in the media and by big corporations and even the government. The inventor dies about ten years after Lillinandra's creation. From his notebooks they find out that through it all he remained glad that he had found this incredible new thing for the world, and he believed it would outlast all the craziness that surrounded it and prove one thing was certain: that the universe is infinite in the discoveries it holds, and that 'mankind should never cease exploring the rooms and corridors of creation in case the doors we always assumed were locked can suddenly be opened'. That's from the back cover. The actual book isn't written that elaborately. Funny, the cover is totally white.

 

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You've never read Candy Party? You have got to read Candy Party. It says right on the back cover that it's the most boring book ever written, and it does not disappoint. It's hilarious. It's nothing but page after page of completely uninteresting people telling you unbelievably vapid anecdotes about their pointless lives. You start reading any one of them and you think, "Okay, this person is an idiot and why are they telling me this?" And then they go on and on and on and they just don't shut up, and you have to start laughing at some point because it's so easy to imagine this type of person telling you all this in real life. There's always a danger that when someone you don't know real well opens up their mouth, a totally pointless, stupid story will fall out. It doesn't say anywhere in the book how they got all these stories. The best—and I guess the worst too—is one guy's explanation of his experiences with drying his clothes in the oven because he's always trying to save money. That takes up four pages. No, actually, even better is the guy who describes the fight he had with his best friend when they were editing a friend's wedding video, because they disagreed over which Billy Joel song to put over the credits in an attempt to impress the bride's sister, who they both thought was hot. They got into such a violent fight about it that they started shoving each other and a bottle of ginger beer spilled all over them both. Now imagine three hundred pages of stories like that. None of them go anywhere. It's all just total verbal sewage.

      The genius of it all is that you're supposed to (and of course no one would ever actually do this) circle the part of every story where you had to stop reading because you got so irritated with its pointlessness.

      Oh God, there are some classics in there. The title story is about a planned group drunk a bunch of guys were going to have on a Friday night, except one guy showed up with a giant bag full of various kinds of candy, so everyone there sampled all the candy and had such a great time eating it for hours and hours that they almost forgot to get drunk. But in the end, they did.

      No, I'll tell you the very best one. I just remembered it. It's someone describing for three pages their constant attempts to avoid a nerdy clerk at Office Depot month after month. You get about halfway through it and it's obvious that the person telling the story would be far more irritating to talk to than the clerk himself.

      Why go see a movie when there are such gems like this to be discovered?

 

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I don't know if this would be considered genius or cruelty, but some publisher once paid a guy to write the true story of his life as a complete, freewheeling, unrepentant drunkard, on the condition that he would write it totally in longhand and only during the times he was drunk. I read it—what I could make out of it. Some of the writing got completely illegible because he really was wasted when he wrote. But he sure was funny. He would start pages normally and lucidly and after a while you couldn't even tell what the hell he was talking about.

 

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This bank in Kentucky gets robbed....no big deal....a guy just walks in and robs it....but then the next day he does it again, completely unexpected, who would rob a bank two days in a row....so the cops keep an eye out for him the third day, just in case he's nuts enough to try it again....nothing happens, so they take off eventually, but then the bank robber accosts the manager and three employees on their way out of the bank and he forces them back in and gets the money....this time he just barely, just barely gets away....it becomes a national story at this point....on the fourth day, the place is totally under surveillance....but this time, the trucks bringing the money into the bank are robbed two miles away in some incredibly complex setup....obviously there's some incredibly sophisticated crew targeting this bank, and they're out to stun the world with the ways they can get its money....so then the bank just plain doesn't open the fifth day....they shut it down....grill all the employees about what's going on....guess what....they open it back up on the sixth day and find out the place was tunneled into the night before and the safe deposit boxes looted....the guys are five for five....and this time they left a note saying that the sixth time's going to be the best of all....all the money's immediately removed from the bank and it's roped off....there's just nothing to steal anymore....and nothing happens the next day....it seems to be over....no one knows what their note meant....until six months later, when it's revealed that some strange fictional land development company somehow sold the strip mall whose parking lot the bank sits on for eight and a half million dollars but the deeds and the contracts were completely phony and a mysterious group of three lawyers made off with four million in cash and disappeared just before anyone got wise and the actual bank building technically doesn't belong to the bank anymore, and the date the papers which made the robbers all that money was, of course, the sixth day of their scheme....when these guys are caught a decade later, all ten of them who were involved in the whole thing, one interesting fact is revealed....the very first day the bank was robbed, it wasn't robbed by any of them....it was some completely unrelated guy....so they had to wait till the next day to begin their plans.

 

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I was at a party and someone brought out this book and we tried to use it, but all it did was make the party weird. It completely sucked the life out of it. Just lifting this book is an effort, it's got about a thousand pages, and it's called You Were Only Dreaming. It consists of twelve thousand dream fragments, each a long paragraph, and all of them told in the second person, like "You're standing in a cornfield...." or "You see a dolphin jump in the ocean...." Some of them are completely bizarre, some are fairly normal, none of them seem to have much to do with any other. You're supposed to pick one at random and read it aloud, then a second person does the same thing, and a third person then tries to find a connection between the two fragments, to find some way they make sense with each other, some strong commonality, but it has to be metaphorical, not literal, and if that connection can be made, another fragment is read, and someone tries to connect it to the one just before it, and on and on and on. After thirty minutes of this, we had all gotten too quiet and were thinking too hard and that ended the party fairly resoundingly.

   I asked the host if I could take the book home. I did, and I stayed up and poked through it at random, reading fragments one after the other, not even playing the game. After doing this for a while, I started to feel like I really was dreaming. My mind drifted from one to the next. I finally had to stop. It was as if I were being put under hypnosis. The size and weight of the book got a little frightening to me, like it was going to swallow me up if I didn't stop. For some reason I began to feel compelled to go home at night and pour myself a glass of wine and start reading it all. It bothered me that there are fragments in there I'd never get to. Thousands, probably. I became addicted. One minute the book would have me standing in the Library of Congress with the all the books beginning to shake, just slightly, barely noticeable, and the Rolling Stones song "Angie" beginning to play in the building, and I'd be picking up an old edition of the New York Times and getting a paper cut that wouldn't heal.  When I flipped to another page, I was holding hands with Boris Yeltsin and skydiving out of an airplane, or trapped in a pie-eating contest in Arkansas, or just having a conversation with someone from my past on a park bench. The fact that I couldn't know what was going to happen next in the "dream" riveted me too much. I took a day off work just to read and read and flit from one dream image to the other. The hours just floated by.

     I finally forced myself to stop and give the book back. Go buy it and see what happens.

 

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My mother bought me a book for my birthday once, which is rare enough, but it turned out to be an "epic poem," stranger still. The author was mentioned on PBS and somehow my mother figured I was smart enough to read this thing, and I gave it a shot. I really did. I blame the back cover and everyone quoted on it for this debacle. It's why I never buy books. The back cover said this poem was "A MONUMENTAL ACHIEVEMENT" and "UNFORGETTABLE" and "COMPLETELY RIVETING" and, my favorite, "EMOTIONALLY DEVASTATING." Plus it was "CAUSE FOR CELEBRATION." Really? Did the critic who said that actually rent out a hall and throw a party because of this poem? And was the guy who said it was emotionally devastating not able to get out of bed the next day because he was emotionally devastated? Was he unable to deal with people for months? Did he break down and weep in the middle of lunch because of it? And don't tell me something is unforgettable. Are you saying it's guaranteed to etch itself into my consciousness and no matter how hard I try I won't be able to forget it? I can't remember the names of my best friends from elementary school, but this crappy book will latch onto me forever? I see these same words on the back cover of every stupid serial killer novel and legal thriller and it's just so obvious there's a conspiracy going on.

    The poem, as far as I can tell, was about a single mother doing something and discovering herself and then becoming a drug addict, something like that. I made it about halfway through and then it became so confusing and baffling I just stopped. So as for COMPLETELY RIVETING, no, I would say it was not, since there were many times when I was physically able to set the book down and do something else, like, say, watch the Spurs game.

 

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There was one I read that took place entirely inside an apartment building in the week leading up to the stock market crash of 1929. There were really only two characters. The story is told through their diaries. One was a financial analyst who lives alone and is starting to think something really bad is going to happen to the market. He doesn't know quite when it's going to happen, he thinks before the end of the year, and he is starting to go about getting all his money out of risky ventures and into some much safer things, and he's calling everyone he knows to do the same thing. Meanwhile, he's just days away from the worst happening, and it's a race against the clock. We know how awful it's going to be but he doesn't. While he tries to figure out just what the possibilities are, something strange is happening five doors down the hallway. A fairly insane man is locked inside his apartment day after day, spending eight and twelve hours a day doing one thing: training a pit bull he bought from someone on the street. He's training it to kill, trying various things to make it more and more vicious, abusing it sometimes. It's very scary. Only about a third of the way through the book does it become totally clear why he's doing this. He's been deluded somehow into thinking that the man down the hall, the financial analyst, who he doesn't even know, is trying to bankrupt him. He believes the man has secret access to his bank account and is pilfering the puny amount of money in there little by little in various ingenious and evil ways. It's obvious this guy has been insane for several years, but now he has a real fixation, and it's incredibly dangerous. He doesn't know what he's doing with the pit bull, and he can barely control it as it gets more and more cruel and nasty. At one point the pit bull bites one of his fingers off. But the man goes forward with the "training program." You can see how the dog is struggling in a strange way to hold on to some semblance of its own sanity, but it's being destroyed. All this time, the market crash is getting closer and closer and the analyst begins to panic forty-eight hours before it because he suddenly sees exactly what's going to happen. He's too late to save a lot of his money. There's lots of interesting details about his attempts to save some of his old clients from his trading days from the crash. He spends two nights in his office and we see that the next time he goes home, it may be the last day he ever lives. The man with the pit bull is almost ready for the dog to mount an attack.

      When the crash happens, there's chaos everywhere but the crazy guy doesn't even notice it. The dog gets out of the awful harness it was shackled into and attacks him. He manages to get behind his sofa and he lies pinned between it and a wall with the dog trying to get at him and rip him apart. He has to stay like that, a foot away from certain death, for eight straight hours. Even when the dog retreats and leaves his sight, he's terrified to move. When it gets dark he decides to take a chance and escape the apartment, and the dog comes after him but he manages to shoot it dead. After that, he goes out onto the street and pieces together what's happened across the country. He just walks the streets, holding his gun, totally nuts. What he believes right away is that the analyst is such a brilliant dark genius that he's managed to defraud and bankrupt the entire country, not just himself. So he hopes to come across the analyst on the street and shoot him dead. But he never sees him. He wanders off into the night and sleeps in a field and his last diary entry is so crazy it's indecipherable. The analyst's last diary entry is about how a strange man who lived down the hall from him jumped out his window after shooting his dog. Everyone assumes the guy committed suicide because, like everyone else, he was hit so hard by the market crash.

      Not much of an ending, but up until that point, it was very suspenseful. I just don't understand what the point was of having both the characters have the same last name. I couldn't tell if it was supposed to be funny or creepy or ironic. Then I had to look through the book again to see if maybe they had been related somehow.

      I'll always remember that book because I finished with it for good the night we all went camping in the Shenandoahs, and it rained and rained and when I woke up in the morning a lot of our things were soaking wet, including that book, and when it dried out it ballooned up to three times its size, and I had never known that's what happened to books when they get really wet. I put it on my shelf for a while so people would ask about it, but then I got a little guilty because after all the work and research that went into writing it, it felt odd to use it as a conversation piece like that. No one ever asked what it was about. They just wanted to see and touch the Freak Book. Shame.

 

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Our book club broke up because of a book somebody chose. It had gotten nice reviews so we gave it a chance. It was about a completely sad, basically invisible human being, a guy in his late thirties who delivers newspapers for a living and lives alone, doesn't have any friends, has one sister who lives outside of the country and just sends him Christmas cards. There's nothing even really wrong with this guy, he's not mean or obnoxious or a criminal, he's just totally alone in the world and not terribly smart, he makes a lot of dumb decisions and can't make any money, and doesn't understand that the things he does irritate people, and all he really wants to do is go home from work and watch TV. The book makes it seem fairly easy to become like this, you have a lot of sympathy for the guy, it's very sad. One day a doctor tells him he has liver cancer, and it's extremely serious. When all the treatments are explained to him, he goes home and does something kind of incredible, which is decide he doesn't want any of the treatments. He wants to do something heroic in his life, just once, and facing death is going to be that thing. He sits down at night sometimes and writes fake newspaper articles in a notebook about himself and what bravery he's showing dealing with the pain, which becomes extreme. But he almost never leaves his apartment. He takes Tylenol for the pain, and very soon it does nothing for him. But amazingly, he is committed to being brave, and as the pain gets worse and worse his mind gets fuzzy and he imagines parades being held for him, all the people from his past throwing parties for him because he's so daring. And in the end, he dies in his little room, totally alone, no one even noticing, having gone through six months of the cancer, the last two being horribly painful. Before his mind is completely run over by the physical pain, he is almost content in a way, because he's become a hero to himself, doing one brave thing he never thought he could. The book really makes you think about what the definition of a hero is, but what it did for the people in the book club was depress everyone so badly and make everyone feel so guilty about ignoring all the lonely people in the world that I was the only one to make it to the end of the story. Two other people faked it and I sort of caught them, and then it became a big argument over how terrible a choice this book was, something that made everybody so sad. The next thing I knew, there was no more club.

 

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I want to say the book was called The Currency of Dreams, but that doesn't sound right. It's about a girl, she's twenty-three when the story starts, and it starts funny, with a montage of her telling various customers at various awful retail jobs she works that what she really wants to do is paint, be an artist. She says this to everyone, and at some point she realizes how ridiculous it is to keep saying this, and she just freezes up in the middle of ringing up a customer at Target and walks right out the door. She can't take her life anymore and she's determined to go off and be an artist, only an artist, nothing else. Since she was seven all she ever wanted to do was be in a room and draw and paint. So she buys a van with the little money she's saved and puts all her paintings into it and prepares to drive off from her parent's house in San Diego to northern California, where she can live on the street for a while if she needs to. The biggest problem with her decision is that she has to leave her older brother, who was just diagnosed with cancer. She feels awful about it but he forces her to go. He's the only one who supports her idea. Her parents think she's gone totally insane. He tells her not only to go after her dream but to stay out of reach of anyone, himself included, unless things become dire for her, to go and live her own life completely, because otherwise she'll never achieve what she really wants. He says he'll find her if he really needs to, if his health gets bad, but other than that, he forbids her to think of him for even a second. The only contact he'll accept from her for one full year is a note about where she is.

      So off she drives up the California coast, off on her own for the first time, determined to be an artist, and completely terrified. She stops in San Jose and figures that's as good a place as any to start her life, and she sleeps in the van at night and during the day she sets up her art on the sidewalk and hopes people will buy it. She sits there and paints all day, lost in her own world, and at night it's back into the van to sleep. Slowly her money fades away and after a week she starts to get quite freaked out and has second thoughts already.

      Her name's Nadia. One day she has her stuff set up at a street fair and next to her is a scraggly, dirty-looking guy who's selling his self-published novels on a blanket spread around him. He writes them and prints them up at Kinko's and tries to sell them and he works odd jobs only when he desperately needs money for food and to print a new book. He and Nadia strike up a friendship and she takes pity on him, even though he's a few years older than she is. She lets him sleep in her van once in a while when she occasionally breaks down and spends the night in a hostel. His name is Kent. He's a sort of bitter, funny, strange guy who's been selling his books on a blanket for almost three years and doesn't much good to say about anyone.

      They rely on each other for moral support as the days and the weeks go by and no one really buys either one of their works. Nadia learns a lot from Kent about how to survive on no money, and also a lot about literature and art, since he's self-educated to a fairly amazing degree. One day, a young guy passing by on the sidewalk is taken with one of Nadia's seascapes and gives her seventy dollars for it, the most she's been able to make so far. She and Kent decide to go crazy with this giant pile of cash, so they drive back down the coast to her five year high school reunion, and when they get there they make up elaborate lies about how successful they are and have a great time and Kent gets rolling drunk. They sleep in the van and the next morning, Kent's gone. Nadia drives around looking for him but can't find him anywhere. After two days, she goes back to San Jose. Kent is gone for three more days, and finally Nadia can only track him down through asking a homeless man they both know if he's ever vanished before and where he might have gone to. It turns out he's actually back in San Jose, he's staying in an abandoned office building and he won't come out from his little makeshift room when Nadia calls through the door to him. He sounds really strange. Then two days after that, he's back on the blanket again, seeming perfectly fine, and he tells Nadia he had a bad case of the flu and was a little delirious and slowly hitchhiked down up from San Diego. He's obviously not telling the entire truth, but he's the kind of guy who will lash out if he's pressed about something, so she drops it.

      A little while after that, the man who bought Nadia's painting comes back, and he invites her to go to dinner with him. She's not sure what to do so she says yes, and Kent pretends not to care what she does and even accuses her of wanting to use the guy for a nicer place to sleep, which of course hurts her. Kent doesn't know she's been crying herself to sleep most nights because she's realized her dream isn't going to work, she just can't take it, she's weaker than she thought. Being a starving street artist is not the life she wants, it's too great a change from her middle class youth.

      Nadia fixes herself up as best she can and she goes out to dinner with the young guy who bought her painting, and it turns out he's on the board of a major art gallery. He thinks Nadia's paintings are quite unique. He tries not to talk about his work much, since he never really chose it. He does it because he inherited his rich father's position on the board and though he's good at the job he has dreams of doing other things. He just never seems to be able to break away from the good life, though. Obviously he's interested in Nadia romantically. She can sense it. When she goes back to her van that night, she feels horribly guilty because she doesn't feel anything for this guy but she realizes it's possible he could make something happen with her work. She makes the mistake of explaining this to Kent, who's the ultimate artistic-integrity-at-any-cost type, and he insults her and stomps away and once again he disappears, this time for a whole week. During that week, Nadia finds out from the homeless man who knows a little about Kent's life that he occasionally drinks to extremes and goes on and off medication for schizophrenia depending on his mood and his finances. He's had a tough life which he doesn't like to talk about. He ran away from home when he was fifteen and never went back. And he's insanely devoted to his ideas of artistic purity and his passion for remaining an outsider who wouldn't dream of "debasing" himself by submitting his work to a publisher. It's slowly costing him his health and his sanity. He's twenty-eight but looks thirty-eight. The last place he should be is on the street, sitting there with his novels day after day, refusing to put any effort into selling them to passersby. He barely acknowledges their presence most of the time.

      Nadia gets horribly lonely during the week with no Kent and she almost calls the guy from the art gallery but she can't bring herself to see him again when her motives are unclear in her mind. What she does is pack up the van and start to drive back to her parents' house. But she stops and turns around halfway there because of an hour she spends eating lunch at a diner, watching the waitresses doing their jobs. She sees her future rolling out before her, and she just can't go back to her old life. She drives back to the place she's been parked for a few months now and Kent is right there waiting for her. She tries to get him to talk about his problems but he pretends again that nothing's happened, and buries himself in writing a new novel on legal pads. They go back to their old ways, but Nadia is miserable now. All she thinks about when she paints is how nice it was to eat in a good restaurant with the art gallery guy, and take a shower at the hostel she stays at sometimes, and sleep in a real bed.

      She lies one day to Kent about where she's going and goes out with the art gallery guy one more time. Mostly what they talk about is how badly he wants to go study law, but he doesn't have the guts to go against his family's wishes and do something totally unrelated to the art society they've been embedded in for decades. Nadia just can't be attracted to someone like this, someone so weak, and she finally has to tell him. He's a little bit crushed. He's already mostly in love with her. He does something a bit stupid when she leaves him, which is offer to buy another one of her paintings, one he really likes, and he offers two hundred dollars for it. And she has no choice but to take it. She's almost out of money entirely. At two in the morning he drops her off at her van and she gives him the painting and he gives her the cash and they have a horribly awkward parting and she feels awful. Then she notices a note on the windshield of her van. It's from her brother, he says he needs to see her, and she knows from the tone of the note that the worst has happened, that his cancer has progressed to the point where she needs to come home after all.

      The next day she meets her brother at a cafe near the van, and after some small talk she starts crying, and he holds her hand and tells her to stop, because something amazing has happened. The reason he needed to see her was that his cancer not only went into remission, but it apparently vanished entirely, gone, totally. There's just no sign of it anymore. He's elated. He's so happy that he says he wants to start a new life right there on the spot, to go do the things he's always wanted to but was too afraid to try. As they sit in the cafe, he realizes he wants to do it all now, at this very moment. They decide this would be a great defiance to the universe, so they leave and walk down the street to the train station, and Nadia's brother buys a cross-country ticket, and he gets on board the train with just his wallet and the clothes he's wearing, both of them laughing and celebrating. And the train rolls out of the station with her brother on it, and it's the nicest part of the book. It's like a happy ending snatched away from one that seemed like it was definitely going to be quite the opposite. The thing that does make it a little sad is that when Nadia is leaving the station, she sees the art gallery guy waiting for his own train, just another trip down to L.A. for him, another day at a job he doesn't like, and not looking too happy about it. She gets out of there before he sees her.

      Out on the street, Nadia decides to splurge and take eight dollars and buy herself a big lunch, and by doing that she misses a scene with Kent. He's sitting on his blanket in the nasty heat a few miles away, writing his latest bizarre novel, when a woman comes up to him. It's his ex-wife. He was married to her when he was nineteen and they got divorced at twenty-one. She's tracked him down for one reason, which is that she thought he might like to see their daughter. She was only one when Kent left. He was already becoming too obsessed and difficult to be with back then, and they haven't seen each other since. So there he is on his blanket, homeless at twenty-eight, and it's completely sad because his ex-wife hasn't meant to shame him or anything like that, it's just that the little girl asks about her first father sometimes. And Kent meets her, and shakes her hand, and says hello, and he's like a completely different person in front of her. His voice is weak and he doesn't know what to say. He doesn't even get up off his blanket, he's so stunned. He asks her a couple of questions and she hugs him and then says so long, and the ex-wife invites him to visit anytime he feels like it, and he thanks her, and when they leave he stands up and wanders off and walks to a liquor store, and having no money, he steals a bottle, but because he's good, a genuinely good person with a lot of anger, he gets ten steps outside the store and then turns around and puts it back on the counter and runs out. He starts to think seriously about suicide and almost gets run over in traffic as he stumbles around, wanting it all to end.

      He's not there when Nadia gets back and so she locks the van and takes her own walk. She takes her paint supplies to a stream nearby and starts to do a painting of her brother, one of the art gallery guy, and one of a particularly sad-looking waitress she saw. She's no good at portraits and these are just for her. When she comes back to the van, though, it's gone.

      She almost loses her mind. Her whole life was inside the van, her paintings, her supplies, her clothes, everything she owned. She walks around in a panic, then heads to a phone to call the police, but she only gets a block or so when she sees a couple of police cars and an ambulance up ahead, and her van, driven off the side of an embankment, totaled. And she sees Kent being carried away in an ambulance. She rides there with him, but he's unconscious. He may have broken his back. Nadia sits in the hospital, waiting for news of him, figuring he got drunk or lost his mind and broke into the van and tried to take it for some unknowable reason. She wonders how she's going to get him into some kind of program to save his life and she wonders how she'll live now. Then the police come and they tell her what happened. It wasn't Kent at all who stole the van. It was two guys who ditched it while it was still running, with Kent chasing madly after them, screaming at them to come back. They jumped out and forced him to decide between running after the van, which was still rolling, and going after them. Kent chose to try to make it to the van. He jumped into the driver's side and tried to stop it before it went down the embankment, but he couldn't quite do it, and the descent threw him out.

      Nadia goes into his room, and Kent is awake. She can't believe what he did. He tells her he knew those paintings meant the world to her, and he didn't see that he had much of a choice but to try to save them however he could. He doesn't see it as courage at all, just something he had to do for someone he cared about. She's amazed by his attitude and senses how strong he really could be if only he could get off the street and into the kind of secure life he has nothing but contempt for.

      Her parents come for her that night to take her home, which is the only place she can go. She sleeps in her own bed and stares at the ceiling, and the next day the van is towed to her, in terrible shape, and she salvages her paintings from it. Some of them were destroyed. She spends the next few days in bed, basically. She calls the hospital every day and finds out that nothing is seriously wrong with Kent aside from a badly broken arm, and that he might get out soon. She wants to come pick him up in the van but she knows she'll get pulled over if she does, it's in such visibly horrible shape, and it's just barely functional anyway.

      Near the end of the book, there's a scene with the art gallery guy. He's sitting in a meeting of the gallery board as they're deciding on new exhibits, and he shows them a slide show of Nadia's paintings, completely unbeknownst to her, and he argues in favor of giving her a show, because what he sees in the paintings is so unique. And the book makes it clear that he might be right, but he might be wrong too. Because you can't see Nadia's stuff and some people on the board just  yawn when they see it, it isn't clear whether she's great or not. That's not the point, really. The point is that the art gallery guy has finally stood up a little bit and is fighting for something he believes in. He makes a nice long speech to the board about their ability to maybe change a person's life by giving their art a chance, and that person should be Nadia, who he admires more than anyone he's ever met, because she's been able to summon up a courage he doesn't understand. It's courage from nowhere. Nadia never had it in her to leave her home and live on the streets, but she somehow did it anyway.

      The last scene is of Nadia sitting in her kitchen at two in the morning, and her mother tells her how glad she is to have her back, and whatever she wants to do, as long as it's "constructive," is fine. She leaves Nadia alone then, and when she goes out on the front porch, Kent is walking up the road. He's hitchhiked to Nadia's house. His arm is in a sling but otherwise he's okay. They don't say anything to each other at first, nothing. They just look at each other. And then Nadia asks Kent if he ever has any intention of changing his life. And not really understanding what she means, he of course shakes his head, No. You can tell he means it. He will not change for anyone or anything. Nadia kisses him then, for the first time, and instead of it being a short thing they continue kissing, and they hold each other, and then she walks off the porch with him, lovers now.  They get into the wrecked van and they drive slowly off in it. By going off to who-knows-where to live their lives just the way they want to, they miss a phone call that the art gallery guy leaves for Nadia at her parents' house. He leaves a message to call him back. Whether it means that the gallery wants to give her a show, we can't quite tell, but it seems that way. Obviously it doesn't matter, because she's never going to get the message. She and Kent are gone.

      I like to think that she made the right choice. It almost doesn't seem like it. But maybe that's not even important. Maybe it was just the act of driving away. I guess I can't ever know.

 

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I'll never forgive the guy who wrote that book Just a Little Taste. I remember I bought it for my mother for Mother's Day, because she likes to read about food and cooking and it was presented nicely, a slim little book, and the author was some hotshot, and three days after I got it for her she called me up and said, "Did  you read this book?" And she gave it to me and do you know what it is? It's seventy-seven pages about one single meal, from beginning to end. The writer imagines himself sitting down with some friends at a stranger's house and the host bringing out appetizers and wine and then a bunch of little dishes and then three, three main courses and a wheelbarrow full of desserts to choose from, and all the writer does is describe every unbelievable mouthful of this gourmet dinner so well that you can almost feel all that great food going right into you, and in the middle of it he begins to reminisce about an amazing barbecue he went to the night before, so all of a sudden he's remembering this phenomenal hamburger he ate, and the best french fries of all time, and someone brought out chocolate milkshakes as a surprise, and hello, there's a flashback within the flashback about a time he went to Italy and hiked all day and wound up at a little bed and breakfast where the owners sat him down and starting bringing out plate after plate of homemade Italian food....mind you, there's nothing but nouns and adjectives and verbs in this book, but it will drive you out of your mind with hunger. It's nothing but food porn, and it's intentionally cruel. He's talking about savoring this veal and he's describing how everyone around the table is drooling and spacing out because it's all so fantastic, and the next thing you know there's crab dip and french bread and some things that don't even make a whole lot of sense, like spaghetti with a cognac sauce followed by some kind of teriyaki lamb....it took me about three weeks to get some of those descriptions out of my head. What a deliberate act of cruelty. Instead of eating one last strawberry to finish the meal like he does, he should have just described himself smearing cherry pie all over his head, because the book is basically that self-indulgent. Food porn.

 

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I remember one day a couple of years ago I was staying home sick, and for some reason I got bored with the Internet and I just started looking through my parents' bookshelves in the den, because they have about a gazillion books, a ton of old ones too, so I figured there must be something there which could kill some brain cells for a while. Eventually I found a little green hardback book called The Argument for Evil. It looked like it was printed in the thirties or forties, it was pretty musty. It was one long essay, long long, about three hundred pages, by a scholar who started off by saying that all our lives we've been conditioned to think that the purpose of life is to be good and honest and loyal and nice, but if we just stopped to consider it, life was totally about survival and survival meant being stronger than other people. He said if you got past all the nonsense about religion, you'd see that we were totally alone in the world, and the purpose of your existence was whatever you made of it, no right and no wrong. And the more power you have over other people, the bigger you become in the universe, which really doesn't care either way what you do. And if you want to have the most intense experiences in life, to live every day to its fullest, well, being completely evil was as good an option as any.

      I really got into this book, although for all I knew the guy was insane. He didn't write like it. He didn't even say he was evil himself. He just wanted to lay out the case for doing unbelievably horrible things to other people. He said that if you took some time to imagine what the lives of the supervillains in movies and books were like, you'd see that they were constantly challenged and excited by life all the time, while the rest of us do-gooders could only dream of being so intense. And if there was no God to judge them when they died, then Caligula and Jack the Ripper and so forth got away with everything they did and enjoyed the world on a higher plane. He didn't mention Hitler, so I guess maybe the book was published before Hitler came along.

      I read the whole book. That's the fanciest one I've ever read. The guy was so interesting. He never said, "Oh, I'm joking, by the way." The last few pages were one long disclaimer, but you could tell he had spent years thinking this all through. For about two weeks after I finished the thing, I considered going the evil route. The guy was even able to explain how getting torn apart by an angry mob for being evil was a victory of some kind. It turns out my father bought the book at a garage sale with a thousand others and he had no idea what it was about. So I never told him.

 

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There's a book I love, I just absolutely love it, I read it at least once every couple of years. I can't even say what's so great about it, but it sends my mind going. I take it on every long trip I have just in case things get really slow and I run out of things to do, I take the book out and start reading it. If I tell you what it's about, you'll say, "That's the book you love out of all the books you've read?" but I do.

      It's about a guy who lives outside of Washington in 1870, he's an attorney, leading a nice quiet life with his wife, not doing anything special. He's a lot like me in a lot of ways, and I'm interested in that time period, so of course that's part of the reason I love the book. But here's what happens. For about eighty, a hundred pages it's just about this guy's little life, how he and his wife are about ready to have a kid, except he's having some problems at work, and you get a lot of great detail about daily life after the Civil War. Just fascinating stuff. Then comes a scene that's so out of left field I didn't know what to think. The guy is cleaning out some old things one day, just going through his study, and in the bottom of a drawer he finds a book. The book, I swear to God, is The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, in its mass market version. The guy picks it up, stares at it, stares at it, flips through it, and of course he's baffled. He goes into a corner of the room and starts to read it. He sees the copyright date and from the first few paragraphs it's written in a style no one has done in 1870, and words are used that he doesn't recognize, and the cover is glossy and colorful. He pores over every inch of the front and back cover, looks at the reviews the book was given by magazines he's never heard of, and sees that it's "soon to be a major motion picture," whatever that could possibly mean. Everything about this thing he's holding in his hands is a total mystery, including the way it's bound and typeset.

      So he reads the whole book without telling his wife about it, or anyone else, and he's so freaked out he doesn't mention it to anyone. There are long passages in which he reacts to things he reads in the novel, concepts about the future, hints of inventions that no one knows about yet. He reads the book ten, fifteen times, always in secret, because he's honestly afraid he's losing his mind. It's obvious his wife knows nothing about how it got where it was. He does a lot of research to find out where the book came from and if it's some kind of a crazy prank, but of course he comes up empty.

      The book isn't trying to be funny. It's very literal, it's about what this guy's life becomes when he finally decides the book is from the future and he's not mad. He still doesn't tell anyone, because he's very analytical and he knows it might upset people, scare them, or at the very least cause him lots and lots of headaches if it got out he owned this thing. He's forced to see life and the world and time in a totally different way, and he becomes one of the great secret philosophers of all time. He never writes anything down, though. He reads and re-reads the book over the years and finally he decides to take it halfway across the country and bury it somewhere, because it's had too profound an effect on him, he's obsessed with it, naturally, and people have noticed that for some reason he's not like he used to be, no longer all that good-natured and funny. He gets rid of the book so he can reclaim his life somewhat, and we're led to believe he will, he's going to be all right.

      Just ten years after he found the book, he finds out he's dying, and he goes back across the country to unbury it. (Lots of great detail about what such a trip would have been like around that time. The whole story is filled with details like that, it's as if you're really there.) The book is exactly where he left it. He just makes sure of that, and then he writes a note to his son, to be read when he's grown up, about where the book is and how it might change him if he decides he must see it. The story ends with the attorney going back home slowly to his family.

      I love that book. It's so vivid in the way it shows how a person's mind can awaken, how hard it would be to get caught in a position to have this secret knowledge, to find out the universe is more mysterious than you ever knew....obviously there's some deeper reason I'm so connected to it, but I really can't explain what it is, I'm sorry.

 

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We had to reject quite a riveting novel fairly recently. You're familiar with the Deborah Lipstadt case of a few years back? She's a historian and she found herself being sued for libel by another historian, David Irving. She had implied that he was a Holocaust denier and he sued to try to clear his rather dubious name. It was quite a famous trial in England at the time; Lipstadt had to hire a team of lawyers to go through all of Irving's writings looking for the ways he had distorted truths about Hitler and the Holocaust, and I think I remember that a survivor or two from that time had to take the stand, and all sorts of evidence from Auschwitz was debated in open court. This book that was submitted to us was a dramatization of the case, taken from the court transcripts, and it was very compelling and gripping, but there was a twist in there to make it far more so.  The main story of the trail was intercut with another story, that of a young woman caught by the Nazis in 1942 and sent to Chelmno to die. Her story was brutal and the descriptions of her days in the camp were realistic and horrifying. The author switched back and forth from her ordeal to the trial and Irving's absurd declarations of how the Holocaust was essentially a fabricated legend. Just before the end of the book and the resolution of the trial, there's a stunning development in the young woman's story after she escapes execution in a gas van and finds her way out of Chelmno. The writing becomes a little strange because there are details that are out of sync with what has come before. The story flashes forward to the present day and it's obvious that the woman is now telling her Chelmno story to her grandchildren and has been lying about virtually all of it. In fact, it becomes obvious that she was never there at all. Almost the entire story is untrue. The book ends with no explanation as to why she has concocted this harrowing tale. It's quite a splash of cold water to the face. I sat the author down and had him explain to me his point in writing such a bold twist, and he did so very eloquently, as he was fascinated by the nature of truth and knew that his ending would be shocking and upsetting and would linger in the mind for days. Which was true. When I gave the outline of the book to my bosses, though, they balked. There was just too much room for controversy in that ending for them. A shame.

 

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I Poked Nicole Kidman was about a real guy out in Los Angeles who built an eight foot pole out of pieces of wicker and dedicated all his spare time to following celebrities and asking them if he could just poke them gently with it. The book's a collection of all the photos he got of him poking lots of stars. The more of them he poked, of course, the more publicity he got. So he wound up getting on talk shows and getting a book deal, while I, with my master's degree in creative writing, slave away in a store selling other people's books. Oh, there's plenty of justice in the world, sure, okay, whatever.

 

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There's a very creepy non-fiction book I read about a man who spent a month or so taking the very last subway train home at night, every night, all the way on the longest part of the line, just to observe people's behavior. He watched the drunks and the homeless and the night shift types, and the people who seemed strange or just bitter for no real reason. On weekends it was almost funny and crazy, and on weeknights it was usually just sort of depressing. The first half of the book was pretty hilarious, he recounted all the loopy people stumbling home from the clubs and the bars, and I was laughing out loud through a lot of it. What the author did then was pack all the unpleasant stuff in the last half, and it got more and more uncomfortable the more I thought about what it's like on that last train of the night. I've had a few odd moments on those myself, when I was bartending. The last forty pages are just completely depressing, it's just incident after incident that you realize could have gotten very dark and strange and dangerous, and you start to really wonder about people and what the middle of the night does to them psychologically. Seems like the author was suggesting that it wasn't always just alcohol and loneliness that caused these blips of behavior, it was the fact that we primally change after midnight. Then there's one last description of a creepy-looking guy going from train to train asking people if they've seen someone named Marigold, and I almost dropped the book in my lap because I remember that guy from when I got off late from bartending. I saw him a couple of times. That was ten years ago and I still remember how scary he looked. I've never had that happen with a book, where suddenly there's a personal connection that leaps out of you from nowhere. I didn't like it, it was unsettling. I like for there to be a wall between myself and what I'm reading. Does that make sense?

 

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