“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell

“Sleep Donation” by Karen Russell

Sleep Donation

The short story genre has never held a huge amount of appeal to me, as I often feel like the author is either trying too hard to create a crazy amount of symbolism in an attempt to be “literary” or they leave me hanging, wanting a full-blown story with fleshed-out characters and detailed action, rather than fifteen pages of straggling nuance and half-hearted hints. But, Karen Russell’s newest release , “Sleep Donation,” drew me in with a fascinating concept and a novella length that I hoped would allow the story a depth beyond that of a traditional short story.

(Disclaimer: Before I go any further, I’m not bagging on all short stories. I am Poe’s biggest fan and love “The Lottery” and “The Monkey’s Paw” equally. But, I rarely pick up a collection of short stories, so this one diverges from my normal reading habits.)

The premises for “Sleep Donation” is a strong one- the US (and soon other countries) is hit with a lethal rash of insomnia that threatens to decimate the population. With little understanding of the disorder, volunteers work to provide sleep transfusions to those most in need. The main character, Trish Edgewater, works with one of these branches, convincing people to donate their healthy sleep (and that of their children), at task which she is supremely successful as she emotionally manipulates the donors through the tale of her own stricken sister, who died after nearly a month of sleeplessness.

For me, the highlight of this story is the connection between Trish’s use of her sister’s biography and the use of dreams to create life. Both are giving power to stories, which creates a decidedly post-modern feel to the writing. And in the end, does Trish’s telling and retelling of her sister’s story serve to memorialize her beloved family member or does it cheapen her suffering through its prostitution? It’s an interesting idea, about how the “owner” of a story uses and manipulates that tale for their own benefit or that of others.

If only the whole tale held up to that same intriguing standard. But it doesn’t. There are too many gaps in the details to make me really love this story. (I want to love it. I think it has a solid foundation, but it crumbles under missing mortar.) For example, I want to know more about the insomniac’s disorder- more about the science behind it. Is it caused by a virus or is a plague of modern making when people can’t step away from the glow of their various devices? Is it contagious or merely addictive? Also, Russell is pretty vague about the treatment. We know that dreams from healthy sleepers can be transfused, in true Red Cross style, but how? How does a sufferer receive those dreams and what does that process feel like for both the giver and the receiver?

In the end, much like the receivers of the donated hours of sleep, I just wanted more.

The irony of the timing of this read was that I read the entire thing on Sunday night when I couldn’t sleep. Yes, that mid-afternoon nap and then Pepsi with dinner may have contributed to my sleeplessness, but still, I read this one cover to cover (okay, first finger-swipe to last, since it is only being released in ebook form, at least for now), sometimes in awe at Russell’s literary craftsmanship and at others baffled by seemingly missing, yet key, details. By 2AM though, I came down square on the center of the fence with this one, meaning Karen Russell’s novella, “Sleep Donation” earns a middle of the road:

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(See my review of Karen Russell’s best-seller, Swamplandia here: http://insearchoftheendofthesidewalk.com/2012/02/10/swamplandia-by-karen-russell/)

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A Broken Butt Won’t Keep Me Down!

I’m not sporty. My loyal blog readers (all 8 of you!) are aware that my athletic history includes such highlights as logging a few innings in the right field of a junior high softball team, fully coordinated between my socks, outfit and hair scrunchie and getting punched in the face by a participant while coaching Special Olympics. But, as the years continue to roll on by and my love of sprinkle doughnuts doesn’t diminish, going to the gym has become a necessary evil in my life. I’ve always wanted to be a runner- someone who looks forward to pounding out a few miles after a long day or work or who feels energized by an hour on the treadmill. Try, try and try again. It just isn’t happening for me. But I put in my time so that my pants still fit.

Still unemployed (I got my official rejection letter for one embassy position yesterday morning), I’ve got a bit of time on my hands. With no excuse to not put in a couple of extra hours a week, I decided that mornings would be the best bet. I could drive Thad to work, hit the gym (which at an embassy short on space, is actually a workout hallway- the cardio machines lined up one behind another down the edge of a long corridor, meaning when a few people are running, it looks like a strange treadmill chase is taking place, with lots of sweat but no actual forward progress) and then head home to shower and get ready for a day of doing whatever it is I am going to do to kill my free hours at this point. I did this several times early last week and it was a great way to get my day up and moving, rather than lounging in my pink owl-patterned pajamas until 11 each day.

Friday morning, I rolled out of bed, had a bowl of corn flakes and threw on my running shorts and tank top with a few minutes to spare. Hair in a high and tight ponytail (best to keep it from sticking to my neck in the gazillion percent humidity of KL), I headed downstairs, shoes in hand, to wait for Thad to finish suiting up. From there, I’m not exactly sure what happened. I wasn’t in any hurry, so there was no skittering or rushing, but somehow, on the last set of steps (our house is five levels!) my socked foot slipped on the marble flooring and from there I stood no chance of righting myself. Down I went! I clearly remember thinking “Don’t hit your head!” as I knew that marble flooring would not gently pillow my noggin, but in my efforts to not crack my skull, I bounced straight on my bum. Three times. I came to a rest in an oozing pile at the bottom of the stairs, huddled on my side, holding aching butt.

Needless to say, one cannot take that spill and walk away with impunity. A bruised forearm, scraped elbow, and oh yes, a fractured tailbone were my housewarming gifts in KL.

But, I’m not going to let a cracked bum keep me from going out and about. Earlier this week, a handful of ladies in the embassy community took me to Chinatown where there is an amazing store called Peter Hoe’s. It’s the kind of place that Penny from The Big Bang Theory would shop to decorate her apartment- lots of bright colors and fun patterns. Luckily, the day I went there, I didn’t have much money on me, so I only came home with one big basket, rather than the pile of goodies I would have liked to have made my own.

Nothing tops the evening out, in terms of uniqueness, that we had last night though- happy hour at a bar set up on a helipad in downtown KL. The owners haul a bunch of outdoor furniture on to this helicopter landing site on the 25th floor of an office building, selling food and drinks to anyone willing to brave the locale. No nets. No fences. Just a thick yellow “do not cross” line and a few bouncers who enforce the rule of the line. (See more photos at fellow FS/KL bloggers site: http://worldwideavailability.wordpress.com/2014/07/24/helipad/)

It’s going to be a few weeks before sitting doesn’t send zinging pain into my rear, but I’m not going to let that stop my wanderings in this new city. Two years are going to fly by and, in the wise words of Aerosmith, I don’t want to miss a thing!

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California by Edan Lepucki

California by Edan Lepucki

California

How far would you be willing to push the line between right and wrong to ensure your own safety? What options would be on the table if it meant keeping your spouse and unborn child protected? At what point to the heinous choices of others become too much and you break off the relationship, even if it is providing you with the basic necessities for survival? Edan Lepucki’s new novel, California uses a post-apocalyptic outer Los Angeles setting to address these questions, creating a world where black and white are no longer distinguishable amongst the thick gray swath painted by the morals and ethics of personal survival.

Reminiscent of The Road, although less bleak and not as beautifully written, California takes place in the near future, when much of the United States has been destroyed through a series of natural disasters, followed by widespread crime and violence. As the infrastructure of cities begins to breakdown, those with the means to do so are willing to pay for protection in the form of Communities- self-contained areas that promise tranquility and peace through heavy vetting of residents and high costs for inclusion. Those without the money to buy their way into these new establishments are left to fend for themselves, some remaining in the decaying cities while others strike out on their own in the wilderness.

Cal and Frida are part of the latter. After Frida’s brother dies as a suicide bomber in the city, she and Cal realize there is no place left for them in “civilization,” so they embark on a journey into the woods where they hope to create a new life for themselves. Soon though, the desire to be with others is overwhelming and after hearing of a larger community of settlers just a few days hike away, they set out to find their neighbors. Having been warned away from this group, they are nervous, but especially Frida, who believes she is pregnant, can’t stop her curiosity of what might be just over the ridge.

What they find is a surprise on many levels. Now, they must decide if they want to be a part of this reclusive settlement (if the members will even have them) or if it would be best to go back to their small cabin and continue on their own. The longer they stay and the more they learn about this functioning outpost, the harder their decision becomes and the less in sync with one other the tight couple grows.

Lepucki forces the reader to confront a series of philosophical conundrums, both about what it means to be a family and at what point the price for security is too high. With no tightly tied up happy ending, the novel leaves the reader to put themselves in this near future setting and wonder what choices they would make and at what point it would all become too much. Although the basics of the post-apocalyptic plot aren’t’ new, the twists and turns and ethical challenges help Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, earn a solid:

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Chateau Ross, Open for Bookings

Getting to KL was a challenge; there is no doubt about that. From delayed flights to crazy cross-town cab rides to unexpected overnights along the way, a “short” thirty-hour travel day turned into over forty hours. But, since arriving, we’ve been slowly working on getting settled in at our new home and Thad’s been plugging away with the check-in process at the embassy. While we don’t yet have internet (although, by the time this gets posted, we will, but as for now, we’re web-less and I am just stacking up posts for when I am reconnected to the blogosphere) and I don’t have a phone set-up, I’m finding ways to compensate and juggle learning a new place while staying connected with the old ones. (That feels awfully Girl Scouts-esque/sing-along-y…something about gold and silver and old and new friends. Having only survived a single year of Brownies before deciding that brown was not my color and I’d rather not wear those dorky knee-high socks with tassels, I have merely a rudimentary knowledge of Girl Scout workings. I do love a Thin Mint right out of the fridge though!)

Six months ago, I would never have thought I would be homesick for Chengdu, but there are definite twinges of that now that we are on the ground at post #2. In Chengdu, I had a full-time, wonderful job with great colleagues and fantastic bosses. In Chengdu, I had a tight group of friends who were always up for some freshly pulled noodles at the Muslim restaurant, a Wednesday evening of horribly un-athletic Zumba or Sunday morning brunch at the Lazy Pug. It’s only been three days in KL, but I already miss those existing relationships. I know in time I will find the same here, but I dread the awkward first introductions, get-to-know-you lunches and initial happy hours. Now, I have to start at square one with explaining my 5-year-old-like eating habits and why melons just taste too melon-y and there is no need for sauce on 98% of dishes.

But, this is what we’ve signed up for and I’m on board, but that doesn’t make the transition stress-free.

We are thrilled with our new home. Already, many people at post have commented on how lucky we are with our housing assignment and how they wish they had our place. The best description of it is a very tall split-level. There is a garage on the bottom (which I’ve taken to calling the basement, even though it is ground level), then up half a flight of stairs is the living room and a splendid screened-in patio that looks out towards the pool. (Screens= less chance of dengue, although I hear two community members currently have this lovely “bone breaking” curse, so it’s always good to be vigilant.) Continuing up another half flight of stairs is the kitchen/dining room, from which you can see the Petronas Towers, a stunning sight when they are lit up at night. Up again and you reach the master bedroom/bath, with vaulted ceilings and what is possibly the worst blanket known to man. (The welcome kit is a “disposable” one, although I’m not sure it ever gets disposed of. When our HHE arrives, we have to pack up the kit and keep it in the basement to use again in two years when our stuff heads on to unknown post #3. I’m definitely a pretty low-maintenance person, but this welcome kit leaves a whole lot to be desired. The kitchenware is super flimsy and the bath towels are sized for homunculi, but they are great for exfoliating! I figure the welcome kit is meant to be crappy so that you are just that much more appreciative and happy when your own blankets/towels/linens arrive.) And finally we reach the top floor, which I am dubbing the “guest floor” as it has two spare bedrooms and a full bathroom. (This should encourage all of you who are contemplating coming to Malaysia for a visit in the next two years. We’ve got an entire floor for you!) We’ve also got a pool just a few feet from our backdoor, but we have yet to try it out, due to a lack of usable towels! (The teensy ones in the welcome kit aren’t really pool-appropriate. But soon…I’m pondering an IKEA run this weekend.)

Compared to Chengdu, we have a massive amount of storage space and are excited to get our personal belongings here to really make our new place “home.” Once I’ve got pictures and wall hangings up, my massive bean bag chair ensconced in the living room and my treadmill put back together, we’ll be set for the next couple of years. Home sweet home. (I initially typed “sweat,” which is nearly as appropriate with the gazillion percent humidity outside each day.)

Guests, start planning your travel now. Two years in KL is going to fly-by and you don’t want to miss out on an entire floor to yourself!

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Top Ten After Ten

With a full ten days under my belt in the sweltering city of Kuala Lumpur, I can’t help but continually marvel at how different it is from Chengdu. Yes, there are some similarities, but with the large Chinese population in Malaysia, I really expected to see a lot more Mainland mannerisms than I do here. So, after just under a fortnight in our new home, here are my top ten KL observations:

  • Daily life takes less energy. The other day, I went to the 7-11 to top up my phone. As I slowly ambled towards the store (I made the poor choice of going at 2PM, at which point in the day anything more than an amble is not likely to happen), in my head I was making a plan of what exactly I needed to ask for and figuring out how to make sure I got my point across. With the chill of high power AC hitting my damp skin, I was greeted with, “Hello ma’am!” and realized that I no longer needed to think through my requests. English was the go-to language in most stores throughout the city, so there was no need to think through vocabulary or rehearse grammatical structures in preparation for a small purchase. (Although, I have found that utilizing the correct local phrase is key. It is vital that I ask for my phone to be “topped up” rather than just ask to have money put on it. The latter request just got me a quizzical look, eyebrows raised and head cocked to the left. Topped up, on the other hand, immediately registered and my phone was once again in working order.)
  • Right-hand driving is odd, but learnable. Upon my first foray into the wild, wild world of wrong side of the road driving, I was sweating bullets (with the AC on high) and nervous at every turn. I actually missed the roundabout I needed to go around because I was freaked out by entering it on the left. I ended up having to go all the way around the block and come at it a second time, which was still disconcerting, but I made it into the flow of traffic and back out again, all with no scrapes or scratches on the new car. I’ve yet to make an entire trip anywhere without accidentally turning on the windshield wipers instead of the blinker, but I’m assuming eventually that too will become second nature. But, the X-Trail and I have been out on a variety of solo trips (all rather short) and one longer trek to the IKEA with the GPS/Thad as my navigator. (Again, we may have missed a few turns, mostly because there are a ridiculous number of flyovers here, which don’t register on the GPS as different from the main road, so it isn’t until long past the point of no return that the GPS either gives me the quiet thumbs up or loudly recalculates as I try to keep my panic to a minimum, reminding myself that we are on no timeline and that the IKEA towels will await my arrival.)
  • Life is all about the malls here. They are large. They are air conditioned. And they are full of high-end stores that I choose not to afford. But, if I am ever in need of a Prada handbag, a Rolex watch or some Versace heels, I have a bead on where to burn my ringgits.
  • Not all grocery stores are equal. In Chengdu, we were all thrilled when a new imported item showed up in the Treat or at Metro and I scheduled by trips to the Trust-Mart to all take place before noon, as it was early afternoon when the hanging chunks of chicken and bins of meat started to really take on a funk. In KL, there are three supermarkets within a mile of our place, all of which are chalked full of foods I recognize and not a single piece of raw meat is seen outside of a cooled display case.
  • Speaking of food: halal and non-halal. Learn it and don’t mix it. I learned this lesson the slightly awkward way. (I wouldn’t say hard way, as I was corrected before I could make too large of a blunder, but it still brought a blush to my cheeks.) Last week, upon my first solo outing in the X-Trail, I went to the Cold Storage grocery store to get the basics to fill our fridge and cupboards. Thad had very few requests, but one in particular was for some lunch meat. We had seen it in the grocery store earlier in the week and it was something that was pretty hard to come by in western China, so it was on the top of my shopping list. I grabbed a package of chicken from the refrigerated section of the store, continued my shopping through the spices and condiments, cookies and crackers and eventually found myself in the far back corner of the store, prominently labeled “non-halal.” There, amongst the bacon and sausage, I saw some packages of deli ham and thought it would be a good addition to the chicken. Picking up two packages, I placed them in my cart and turned to check out the cereal and snack section of the store, but was quickly stopped by a clerk. Gently and without any obvious horror on her face, she told me that all non-halal items had to be purchased within the non-halal section of the store and placed in a separate bag from the rest of the available items. Thank goodness that woman was there! I can’t imagine the embarrassment if I had made it up to the regular registers with my pork products, effectively offending two-thirds of the shopping population that morning. Lesson learned. Make all non-halal purchases separately and bag them individually.
  • Purse paranoia has me in its clutches. Purse snatching is a huge problem here, with everyone I’ve met at the embassy either having had it happen to them or to someone they know well. Men on motorbikes ride by and grab purses off of women walking along the sidewalks on a fairly regular basis. Enough that everyone talks about it, all of the time. In Chengdu, I walked a lot of places, with nary a thought to the safety of it. I’d plug in my headphones and enjoy lovely combination of Bon Jovi, Britney and Backstreet Boys as I went on my merry way. No such thing will happen here. Instead, when walking here, it’s important to be constantly aware of the surroundings, watching the motorbikes (especially those with double riders) and keeping an eye on which side of the road to walk on and handbag placement (always on the shoulder away from the road). It’s been on to feel such a slight paranoia on a regular basis. The longer we are here, the more obvious it is to me why everyone has a car and drives here. It isn’t just because of the heat.
  • Starbucks is my friend. Chengdu was the first time I ever spent money in a Starbucks and there I became a semi-regular, going for an oversized chocolate muffing for a Friday morning snack or frequenting the peppermint hot chocolate counter from November through January (seriously, it was like Christmas in my mouth.) Now though, I am no longer looking for a mid-morning work break (no job makes that easier to avoid) or a steaming cup of anything (more ice!), but I am in real need of their Wi-Fi connection. Our home internet has yet to be hooked up, so currently, my only connection to the world of newsfeeds, blogs and online shopping is through a cup of iced passion fruit tea and a maximum of two hours from the free passcode. (Due to the lack of internet, but the time this post actually makes it onto In Search of the End of the Sidewalk we will be well passed the ten day mark, but I’m trying…trying…trying to be patient.)
  • Not working is weird. I know I did it for a year when we were in DC for training, but I think over time I forgot what it was like to not have that daily schedule. On the outside it sounds like a great deal- not having a job to check in at each day, but I know myself well enough to know that I don’t stay home well. After two years of CLO-ing, I thought it would be great to have a bit of time off between jobs, but apparently two months is more than enough for me. I am ready to go back to work, to have my days full of assignments and emails and colleagues. (Right now, the household lizards, all of whom I have dubbed “Lenny” are my only colleagues. I haven’t yet started to talk to them, so that’s good, but it is just a matter of time.) I’ve applied to several positions at the embassy, so now it is just a matter of waiting. Waiting. Waiting.
  • Lizards are to be loved, mosquitoes are to be avoided. With a 280% increase in dengue fever over this time last year, the bug-eating reptiles are man’s new best friend. Knowing that these four-legged, squirmy creatures are actually a health-benefit, I try not to squeal too loudly when I open the cupboard below the sink and see one scurry under the pipes or squawk too loudly when one dashes over the top of the clothes dryer when I wander in to the laundry room first thing in the morning or even screech when a Lenny scampers over my foot on his way to the wall when I get up for a glass of water in the middle of the night. New house rule: No wimpy-girly noises that potentially scare off the critters that do nothing more than nosh on blood sucking, disease-carrying insects.
  • Although they share a continent and a time zone, on the surface, Kuala Lumpur and Chengdu share very little else. To have a great tour here, I need to put the comparing aside and love Kuala Lumpur for what it is- a great city with a few bumps and bruises, making it not that different from Chengdu, after all.

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Sweet Sixteen

Sixteen years of sidewalk searching behind us and hopefully endless ones ahead.

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Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hard Choices by Hillary Rodham Clinton

hard choices

Often, I avoid writing book reviews on books that are already saturating the blogs, best seller lists and “must read” lists, as I rarely think I’ll have anything new to add to the litany of literary conversations, as these books tend to be deconstructed to the point of destruction. But, I’ve been compelled by one recent release to weigh in, mostly because it hits rather close to home. Hillary Clinton’s new memoir Hard Choices has been pulled apart, sentence by sentence, as her run for the highest office in America is imminent. Her allies have seen it as a justification of the choices to, at times, work with countries whose governments we oppose on many levels, as a defense of State’s role in the Benghazi attacks and their aftermath and as drawing a strong line in the sand against countries such as China and Syria. On the other hand, her detractors see the publication as nothing more than a chance for some free publicity leading up to the 2012 presidential elections, getting her “side of the story” out to the press and public through book signings and other events that they see as transparently working the electorate.

Regardless of the politics on either side or the dizzying spins pundits of all walks have placed on the book, I think it holds its own as a glimpse inside the US Department of State and what goes on behind those historical handshakes, Secretary-ruling-the-world memes and viral photos from the White House’s Situation Room. Hard Choices lets the average American into the inner workings of our country’s diplomatic corps, from the consular officers who protect our nation’s borders by carefully screening visa applicants to the political officers who report, from on the ground, about changes in official policy as well as the vibe of the general population within their host country.

Growing up in Idaho, the Foreign Service was just that- foreign. I had no idea what it was, and really, I probably couldn’t have even told you it existed. It never came up in any career day or job fair and wasn’t definitely not on my radar until my Peace Corps days. Having a book like Hard Choices top the best seller lists at least puts this small but important part of our national government in the spotlight for the average American citizen.

While the tome is definitely thorough, and at times can feel a bit plodding, readers should set aside their political leanings and read it not so much as Clinton’s personal memoir, but rather as a view into a world that is often kept quite quiet. Partisan judgments aside, Hilary Clinton’s Hard Choices is well-worth the time investment required by the 600 page undertaking, as it shines a spotlight on how our country interacts with others throughout the world, both friend and foe, earning it:

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