My Book a Week Challenge – Week 7

WHAT’S PLAYING: Dashboard ConfessionalVindicated

This week’s book is “Everything is Broken” by John Shirley.

When twenty-year-old Russ arrives in the northern California town of Freedom to visit his dad, he finds a town cut off from state and federal government. Thanks to the local mayor’s ideas of “decentralization,” Freedom enjoys minimal public services including medical care and law enforcement. Before Russ can get to know much about the town and its people – including an interesting young woman named Pendra – a massive tsunami strikes the West Coast, killing most of the town’s inhabitants and leaving Freedom helpless to combat the wave of human brutality that soon follows. A local gangster, Dickie Rockwell, has plans for Freedom and they include the town’s increasingly unhinged mayor and a lot of killing. Now, it’s up to Russ, his father, Pendra, and the other townsfolk to find the strength to survive and find real freedom.

On his website, John Shirley describes this book as a “thriller and political allegory,” but it’s so much more than that. In just a few hundred pages, this book manages to shock, frighten, and enrage, all while making the reader think. What struck me most about this book was Shirley’s powerful use of imagery, both during the tsunami and in the aftermath. He has this unique ability to observe people, places, and events and then distill them down to their purest, most basic forms.

Word of caution: packed with action, violence, and depravity in its purest form, this book is not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. Seriously, after I finished reading it, my first instinct was to go out and buy a whole bunch of guns. Then, I remembered how clumsy and absent-minded I am and decided against it. (But I still sleep with a switchblade under my pillow…just in case.)

Bottom line: A different kind of disaster novel. One well worth reading.

Favorite Line/Image (WARNING – disturbing imagery): “A little later: A gasping, semiconscious young woman trapped in her slime-swamped Audi, mud up to her neck. People digging her out. Finding that her belly was sheared open by a big shard of metal from the car door, mud crammed up inside her, she hadn’t lived long after they’d dug her out. Russ had made the mistake of letting her get a grip on his hand as she lay dying. Just couldn’t bring himself to break the grip. Had to watch her die.”

What I learned: Details matter. The line above isn’t really my favorite, but it’s one of the many images that kept repeating in my head long after I’d put the book down. I think what makes this book so compelling is Shirley’s exquisite attention to detail, even in the midst of huge events like the tsunami. He knows which details to include and which to leave out. This makes for a realistic experience without overwhelming the reader with information.

Coming up next week: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman.

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Why You Should Get Lost in Discworld or How Terry Pratchett Changed My Life

WHAT’S PLAYING: AdeleLovesong

I received a strange package in the mail last Monday, but because of work and the general chaos that is my life, I didn’t get a chance to open it until the night before Thanksgiving. Imagine my surprise when I opened the envelope to reveal a signed copy of Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel “Snuff”.

Cue happy dance!

Happy Dance

After jumping around and screaming for about twenty minutes, I settled in and started reading. Bedtime came and went, chores went undone, and phones and e-mails unanswered.  (Sorry, Dad.) I finished it around 3AM, and fell asleep still wanting more.

Now, I could tell you how great the Discworld books are. Funny, relevant, and brilliantly written, they are an awesome combination of fantasy, humor and satire.

Instead, I think I’ll tell you how these books changed my life.

When I was nine years old – per a custody agreement drawn up before I was even born – I left my home on the reservation and moved in with my father. I still visited my mother fairly often, but it wasn’t the same as living with her. I was something of a loner before I left the rez. After, I became down right reclusive. I rarely spoke and spent most of that summer in my room, only coming down for meals or at my father’s insistence.

Problem was that I didn’t speak English very well. I could barely string three words together.  So, that fall, my father enrolled me in a Catholic school that specialized in teaching ESL (English as a Second Language). I excelled at math and science, but my grasp of the English language remained sketchy at best. Truth is, I didn’t want to learn. I already spoke one language fluently. How many did I need?

Then one day, a nun handed me an old, dog-eared copy of “The Color of Magic”. It took me over a month to finish it, but after that, I was a goner. I decided that if I had to learn English to read books like that, then I would learn. Six months later, I had reached “proficient” level. Two months after that, I was fluent. My love of reading didn’t end with Discworld – over the years, I discovered Twain, Gaiman, Shirley, Norton, McCraffrey, Lackey, and so many others – but it began there. And the result is that I now get to make my living doing the two things I love most: chemistry and writing.

Don’t get me wrong, not everything is roses. There are mornings I wake to the gray and featureless void of depression. When the very act of breathing is a struggle and I feel about as worthless as tits on a telephone pole. It’s on these days that I force myself to look for pleasure in small things: a funny movie, an uplifting piece of music, a hot shower, even a spoon of ice cream. (To paraphrase Raymond Carver: eating is a small, good thing in a time like that.)

And, of course, a good book.

The Discworld novels saw me through my first transition from reservation life to the mainstream. Ten years later, they helped me cope when I lost my twin brother, and my fiancée five years after that.

I’m not saying that reading is some sort of magical cure for depression. It’s not. But, you have to admit that a world in which books like “Snuff” or “The Color of Magic” exist can’t be all bad.

What about you? What cheers you up when life gets  hard? Friends? Family? Music, art, or books? Where do you find your little wonders, your small pleasures?

Stories not only shape our perceptions, but can also shape our lives if we let them. They remind us that there is no such thing as a hopeless cause, that we can all be better if we choose. If they’re really good, stories can leave us feeling uplifted and a bit wiser.

And that is no small thing.

Picking up a Book and Blowing up the Porch

WHAT’S PLAYING: Evanescence “Call Me When You’re Sober

I have two great loves in my life: chemistry and the written word, though the path by which I came to them was a rocky one.

When I was ten, my uncle gave me an old chemistry set, and with my first successful experiment, I was hooked. I spent my days lost in a world of “what-ifs.”

As you might imagine, my passion for chemistry came with a laundry list of issues. Like the time my brother distracted me while I was cooking up a smoke bomb. It took hours to air out the kitchen.

Then there was the incident with a batch of super-charged homemade gunpowder. (I was trying to make my own fireworks and wound up almost losing the porch and my eyebrows at the same time.)

And then there was the time I decided to make a homemade stink bomb. Nothing too difficult. Just cut the heads off some matches and stick them in a bottle along with some ammonia. Give it a swirl and then leave it for 3-4 days. A perfect tool with which to prank my older siblings.

That is, of course unless a certain person who shall remain nameless decided to alter the recipe for maximum stench, and then forgot about it, leaving the bottle in a kitchen cupboard for two weeks during one of the hottest summers on record. And if that nameless (and blameless) child’s stepmother happened upon said bottle, gave it a little shake, and then opened it…. You get the picture. I was grounded for a month and the kitchen was uninhabitable for almost as long.

It was then, that my family embarked on what became known as “Operation: Distract Jacqui”. They knew that reading was the only thing that could compete with chemistry in my mind, and so every time they saw me walking around the house with a glazed look in my eyes that signified my wandering off into “what if” territory, they would immediately suggest I read something. Anything. As long as it didn’t involve chemistry.

It was incredible. Suddenly, I didn’t have to beg for trips to the library any more. If I wanted a book, it was mine. My father would call ahead and reserve a stack of books so I wouldn’t have a chance to browse through the science section of the library. Holidays were particularly stressful.

“But you don’t understand,” he would say, his voice rising in desperation. “If we don’t get my daughter some books for the weekend, she’s going to try to blow up the porch! Again!”

I’m lucky. I get to do what I love and get paid for it. I still wander around in a world of “what ifs,” only this time I’m wondering what would happen if I put an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. What will they do? How will they react? Will they emerge a stronger, better person? Or will they abase themselves or lose their humanity? What if?

What about you? What led you here? What dreams have you decided to pursue? Writing? Music? Art? How have your childhood fantasies come true?