Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity  by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a powerful look at what a vast number of people face on a daily basis, just to make it through to see the following day. This book takes any romantic notion of poverty that may still exist in the reader’s mind and destroys it completely.

For the Indians living in the slums surrounding Mumbai’s international airport, nothing is easy, nothing is straightforward and nothing can be relied on. In Annawadi, difficulties are thrown at these people daily. Everything from finding enough recyclable trash in the heaps of garbage surrounding their lashed together sheet-metal homes to sell and make a little money to buy a bit of food for their families to contentious neighborhood relationships seen through the eyes of both caste and religious systems become battles that are waged and fought day after day after day.

Katherine Boo’s book follows a handful of characters, varying in age and background, through these difficulties. One family is dealing with false accusations after a jealous neighbor self-immolates and then, before dying, blames her suicide on a family that was starting to prosper. The husband, as well as a son and a daughter, are imprisoned on these charges, as the mother has to navigate the corrupt judicial system of the Indian government. One woman decides the only way she can improve her situation is by becoming the slumlord, but to achieve this goal she must push aside any inklings of empathy or concern for others. Slumlord-ing is a dog-eat-dog world and she is set on becoming the only dog left standing. Another young lady decides that eating rat poison is the only way to achieve the freedom she desperately desires. And the parade of desperate people forced to make desperate choices continues.

Boo’s book is the epitome of narrative non-fiction. Her story is told so well, with so much detail, that for the first few chapters, I was actually a bit confused about what genre I was reading. I thought for sure I had seen in the summary of the book that it was non-fiction, but some of the characters are so outrageous and the setting is so destitute that I thought I must have misinterpreted what I had seen, that this must be created entirely from her imagination. The writing flows like that of a fictional story, with touching dialog, detailed descriptions and a voice that is usually associated with storytelling.  This book rips off any rose-colored glasses through which the reader may still view poverty, throwing them into the heaps of garbage that Abdul and his friends are forced to dig through each day, just to earn enough rupees to keep their families afloat. There is no romanticism in Boo’s tale, but rather a stark, unblinking look at how many of the world’s unfortunate are forced to scrape and scrabble their entire lives, just for the chance to maybe make their kids’ or even their kids’ kids’ lives just a bit better. Katherine Boo’s  Behind the Beautiful Forevers earns:

The “+” Column Doesn’t Always Win

Sitting in a long, faux leather, mechanically reclining chair, enjoying the strange comfort of a heavy radiation repellant blanket over me, listening to the buzzing x-ray machine resting next to my cheek, I was amazed to find that for the first time ever at a dentist’s office, the bite-wing x-ray strips were not cutting into the top and bottom of my mouth. I quickly chalked this up in the “+” column for the week, as it had been one where the “-“ column was definitely dominating.

This last week started with Thad getting a call on Sunday afternoon saying that his Aunt Karin had passed away. Aunt Karin had been fighting cancer, most recently a brain tumor, for years now, and has had a really tough time the last few months. We were lucky enough to get to spend Thanksgiving with Thad’s Pennsylvania family and see his aunt again. She leaves behind four fabulous boys and a loving daughter, as well as a hero of a husband, her mother, brothers and sisters and a whole host of nieces and nephews.

When we got the news that the funeral would be held on Thursday, we quickly put together plans to attend. This meant making arrangements with FSI to miss our classes that day, which isn’t always as easy as it might seem. Thad’s final Chinese exam is on Tuesday, so the he has lots of one-on-one study sessions scheduled with teachers, as well as classes set aside just to help him and a few others testing in the near future, prepare for the exam. He had to make sure to clear the absence with an array of instructors. In ConGen, the course I am currently taking, there is a 100% attendance policy. This means that I will have to make up the classes I missed by attending them the next time they are offered. (Typically, every seven days.) The obnoxious part about this is, I will take my final exam in ConGen this coming Friday, but then will have to go back the following Monday to sit through lectures for which I have already passed the test. Lame-o!

With a car rented and a super fancy Super 8 motel room booked, we headed out after work on Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday was a rough day. The services were well-done and many people came to mourn with the family. I was a little thrown by the pastor’s lengthy reference to Madonna during the sermon. (Not Bethlehem-dwelling, virgin-pregnancy Madonna, but Super Bowl performing, “Like a Virgin” Madonna.) The discussion was of us living in a material world and being material boys and girls. I’m still not sure if it was an awkward attempt at a pop-culture reference (albeit not current, as that song was released in 1985) or a more serious endeavor towards making us consider our own mortality, but either way, it was a unique take on funeral speaking. (I have to say, I was oh-so-secretly hoping that his next point would reference Lady Gaga. But alas, such things were not to be.)

After Thad completed his service as a pall-bearer, we met up in the basement of the church, where the congregation had put together a lovely lunch for everyone who attended the funeral.  The people running the kitchen were pros at this, taking all of the work off of the grieving family and running a well-oiled machine when it came to service. It was really nice to be able to sit and chat with family before having to head back to the DC area that afternoon.

Funerals often make people introspective and reflective when it comes to their own lives and those of their loved ones, but I’ll share my lighter life-lesson of the day: don’t get travel immunizations the day before a funeral.  On Wednesday, Thad and I both became State Department pin cushions, as we got the first round of vaccinations we will need for the upcoming move to China. My arm was already sore, as the tetanus shot tends to be a super-achy one to begin with, but then add on a bevy of hugs, a mass of “gentle” arm rubs, a series of arm squeezes and a couple attention-getting punches from an unsuspecting uncle and I end up with a left arm that throbs for the entire four hour ride between Greensburg, PA and Arlington, VA.

Back home, the week continues, with us going back to classes and my excitement for housing news continuing to grow. Since we returned from Christmas break, I’ve asked Thad daily if he’s gotten an email from Chengdu with our housing assignment. The way the process works is that the Foreign Service Officer submits a form called a Housing Survey to post, where a housing board then meets and assigns housing to those officers and families arriving in the near future.  The Housing Survey is basically just a paper asking what the officer’s preferences are. We put (at every possible opportunity on the form) that we would like to live off-compound and maybe somewhere less “Westernized.” I have been waiting like a clown awaits a new pair of giant, floppy red shoes! Knowing where we are going to live will be a super step in the moving process.

Friday, the email finally arrived. Thad forwarded me a note that was all of about four sentences long, welcoming us to our apartment…on the consulate compound. No pictures. No blueprint. Nothing.  Just a compound apartment number.  Ugh! Seriously? The only thing I really asked was to not be on the compound, but it appears that is where we were placed. In Chengdu, that housing seems to be mostly families, as there is a playground and the secure grounds are nice for young kids. Great for them, but not so great for a young (relatively!) couple with no kids with a high level of comfort in the host country and a desire for a bit of space between their professional and private lives. Talk about going from uber-excited to down in the dumps in a matter of seconds.

This has just not been a great week.

I know every argument about why I shouldn’t be upset by this, but I still am. I know that it is a huge perk that the State Department pays for my housing, and I am thankful for that. I know that the housing will probably end up to be just fine. I know that in a few days I will be over it and excited to go again, but I’m just not there yet.  I rarely get upset about much, so I just need a few days with this. It will be fine. The back of my brain tells me that- I’m just not quite there.

To wrap up my wonderful week, I ended Friday with a dentist appointment. My teeth suck. I’ll just put it out there. Nearly every time I go to the dentist, I have a new cavity or other issue that needs to be dealt with. (My local dentist chalks it up to growing up on well-water and not city-water. I don’t know how valid of an argument that is, but weak teeth are mine, regardless of the reason.)  I was super-de-dooper excited, channeling my inner-Barney, to find out that my crown is still good and that I have not a single cavity! Yay! I was soon returned from my mental PBS-foray when the dentist flopped the x-rays up on the screen in front of me, not to point out the lack of cavities, but to point out the old silver filings that are leaking! Ugh! Seriously? I apparently have two (side by side) fillings from about a million years ago that are leaking and need to be replaced. So, even though I have not a single cavity, I still get to get the drilling. Nice.

It has been a long week. Luckily, it wasn’t a total bust. Things started looking up on Saturday and now I am convinced that it is up, up and away from this point onward. I hosted a small baby shower here at the mo-partment Saturday afternoon and then met up with fabulous Peace Corps friends for dinner Saturday night.

This week is going to be nothing short of the mirror opposite of last week. It is going to be stupendous, tremendous and marvelous. I am going to get excited again about moving to Chengdu, compound housing or not. Thad is going to pass his Chinese exam and we are going to go out to celebrate. There will be no shots, no funerals and no dental drillings.

It’s time to rally Team Ross. Ra-Ra-Hip-Hip-Hurrah!

Bed by David Whitehouse

Bed by David Whitehouse

Any book that, on page one, includes the sentence, “He was an enormous meat duvet” is a winner in my opinion. I need to go no further than that initial few paragraphs to know I am hooked!

Bed is the tale of an obese, bed-ridden man named Malcolm, who weighs it at over one hundred stone. (For all of us living on the rebellious side of the Pond, one stone is equal to fourteen pounds.) While Mal is the central focus of the story, the narration is given by his younger brother, who, like all of the characters in the book, has been drawn into Mal’s orbit, unable to break away from the strong gravitational pull his lifestyle choices have created.

This book could easily have veered into the realm of mockery and disdain for a person who has made the conscious choice to never again leave his bed, but instead, the heart of the story lies in pondering what exactly it means to love another human. Each of the characters feel love for others, but the way that emotion is expressed (or hidden) varies widely, as do the results of that love.

Mal decides on his twenty-fifth birthday that he doesn’t want all the “ing’s” life has to offer. He doesn’t want to be a part of marrying, buying, working, parenting, etc. The view he holds of his future is one in which he is expected to follow in the footsteps of the generation before, just plodding along until death finally comes for him. Rather than partake of those unwanted “ing’s” for several more decades, he resigns himself to his bed, and, as it turns out, his food.

While some parents would be horrified by this turn of events (I highly doubt mine would be thrilled if I were to move back in full-time), Mal’s mother sees her only purpose in life as caring for others. She cared for her mother until disease took her away. She cared for her husband and family for years. Once her two boys are grown, she was at a loss as to who she really was, until Mal moves back in that is. Now, with Mal ensconced in his childhood room, his mother can devote her time and energy to his constant care, which becomes a huge task as he grows larger and larger, loosing mobility and the means to complete even simple personal hygiene tasks on his own.

Mal’s father, younger brother and girlfriend are also forced into lives that are dictated by Mal. All seem to have lost the ability to break the chains that connect them to this aging anchor of a human being. While physical escape (to the attic, to a tent in the yard, to America even) is attempted, all are soon sucked back into the vortex of Mal’s needs- “selfish obesity,” rather than just morbid obesity, as it is referred to at one point in the novel.

Each character is connected to others through unique relationships, yet the binding tie throughout the book is the question of whether these relationships are healthy. All are love. There is no doubt about the emotion behind the ties that keep them together, but it seems that love on its own may not always be enough for a healthy relationship to exist. Love pushes each character to do the things s/he does, but the results of those choices aren’t always the best for that individual in the long run, nor are they pointing people in positive directions. Whitehouse does a great job of taking an emotion usually associated with affirmative and progressive interactions and casts it in a light where the reader is forced to look again. Is there something a bit malevolent lurking in the shadows of the family’s love for one another?

The tale is an odd one, I must admit. A book about a man weighing in at over a half ton is not something I would normally gravitate towards, but the dust cover was intriguing enough to make me want to know where the story was going to lead. The writing of this book is great!  The descriptions are superbly written,  not only of Mal’s condition and the physical toll it take on his body, but of how each family member struggles to make a place for themselves in world shrinking as Mal’s corporal domination continues. David Whitehead’s Bed earns:


The Intimidation of Sparkles and Baubles

So, years ago, not long after we were married, when Thad and I were both teaching full time, I used to tell him I wished he had a job that meant I got to get dressed up and go to fancy parties. I love the idea of flow-y dresses, sparkly baubles and fabulous heels.  Yes, Disney and its fairy tales wheedled their collective way into my brain. Who wouldn’t want to trade chores for a glass slipper and a ride in a sparkling carriage? Who wouldn’t love a life of mirrors that told you just how fabulous you looked in the latest ball gown? I was pre-“Dinsey princess” times, where the rags to riches stories are  mass marketed in every shade of pink and purple imaginable, but I did have stacks of books featuring a variety of fairy tale princesses getting happily-ever-after endings in full formal attire.

The teaching world doesn’t provide a lot of those regal-esque opportunities. The closest I got as a middle school teacher was buying a new dress each year for the 8th Grade Recognition Night (i.e.: 8th grade graduation, but don’t even get me started on that topic!) that I planned, prepared and pulled off each year. Those dresses definitely didn’t fall into the “formal” category, being much closer to the “spring casual” one, but they were still a lot of fun. (The 8th grade girls also loved to buy new dresses for the occasion, which really was a pretty big deal for them and their families. One year I wore the same dress, luckily in a different pattern, as one of my students. I was secretly glad to know that I still had the “cool” factor, while she was probably secretly horrified to be dressed the same as her teacher!)

Years have passed. I have a collection of random dresses from each of those Recognition Nights, as well as a couple qipaos (traditional Chinese dresses) and a slew of casual summer dresses, as well as a bridesmaid dress or two. These were doing the trick…until Thad got his new job. Now, as a Foreign Service Officer, he will be expected to attend evening socializing events, as well as more formal ones such as the annual Marine Ball. I definitely don’t have anything in my closet for those!

Now that he has the job that means I need a fancy dress or two, I find myself at a loss! It sounds like I will need a formal and a cocktail dress or two. The problem is, now that I am in that position I used to envy, I don’t really know what to do with it. What exactly qualifies as a cocktail dress? Ack! I go to stores and look at dresses, get overwhelmed and leave without making any headway. This pattern has played out several times over the last few weeks, with the only real progress being the appointment I made for a few weeks from now to go look at a dress that I found online. It falls into the “formal” category, meaning the “cocktail” one is still a complete blur. Where to start?!? (My normal store choices of New York and Co., Target and Old Navy have not been a lot of help. Although, I have found some tank tops and shorts that I will need to add to my dresser before heading to Chengdu!  This is part of the problem- I am easily distracted by easier to wear items and those with price tags that are easier on my wallet. )

I find it odd (and it comes up often as I complain and he reminds me that I am just getting what I wished for) that I used to give Thad a hard time about not having a fancy-pants job, but now that he has a career with the occasional fancy outing (again, none of those in the world of education), I am tempted to shrink back into the land of jeans! I still love the idea of the dressy outing, but shopping for such apparel is a bit intimidating. Once my consular training course is over in just a couple more weeks, dress shopping is just one more thing on my growing list of things to accomplish before our quickly approaching mid-April leave date. Flow-y dresses, sparkly baubles and fabulous heels, I’m comin’ for you!

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Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

It seems that most Americans know someone who has adopted a baby from overseas (and by “know” I don’t mean read about Angelina Jolie’s growing menagerie in the weekly tabloids), many of those being baby girls from China. There is endless speculation about why the adoption rates coming out of China were so large for so long (they’ve fallen off precipitously in the last few years).  Most of what we hear is the Western media’s take on the situation, based on a variety of both reliable and unreliable sources. While at times this media coverage is accurate, often it portrays the birth mothers as unfeeling, selfish and backward in their cultural beliefs. These are easy sentiments to propagate, as they serve to make the adopting families feel a sense of superiority to the birth mothers forced to make terrible choices. In reality, I worry that all such speculation does is create a more deeply ingrained stereotype of the Chinese people and their culture.   Xinran attempt, and succeeds, in putting human faces on those mothers. While we may still have a hard time culturally identifying with the women and the choices they make, they are no longer faceless foreigners, just abiding by cultural dictates, but instead real mothers facing a dilemma and pain that is unknowable to many.

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is a rare opportunity for us to glimpse the other side of the adoption story.  This book is not a single story of one woman who gave up her baby, but rather a series of tales from a variety of women, spanning the entire spectrum from uneducated countryside to highly educated city women. Through the stories of these women, we are allowed a glimpse into a world that requires mothers to make difficult choices, to weigh their own emotion versus what is best for their child. None of the stories are easy to read, but all are worthwhile.

One of the things that I really liked about this book was the way Xinran was able to mesh the adopting mothers’ points of view with those of the birth mothers. While the focus of the collection is on the Chinese mothers, she doesn’t neglect the wonderful families in other countries who have opened their homes and their hearts to these young girls. There is no finger-pointing or name-calling, but rather a true desire to help the world, and especially those Chinese girls who have been adopted, understand what their biological mothers were faced with and why the decision to give the baby up for adoption may have been made.

The book sways the reader on a pendulum of emotion. At times tears and frustration and anger directed at the historical dictates, strict government officials and mothers unready to fight their current situation are at the forefront of the reader’s psyche, followed shortly by awe and inspiration at another group of women who dedicated their lives to improving the lives of the young Chinese who could not care for themselves.

The writing itself isn’t of the highest caliber, lacking a sense of flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph, but the story told is important enough to outweigh the book’s literary shortcomings. (Part of this disconnect may be connected with the fact that this is a translation from Chinese. The smoothness that we are used to as readers of English may just be a different style than a non-fiction book of this type would display when written in Mandarin.) This book would be a beautiful gift for anyone who has adopted a Chinese baby or for the girls themselves when they are old enough to start questions what may have caused their mothers to have made such a painful choice. Xinran’s Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother earns:


Habibi by Craig Thompson

Habibi by Craig Thompson


I feel as though I could wrap of this review with just that one word. Habibi is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Josh (friend, librarian and book recommender-extraordinaire) told me about this book last fall, at which point I went directly to the Arlington Library homepage and put it on hold, to be shipped to my local library branch.  It took about a month for the book to become available, which just happened to fall during the time I was exploring Anne of Green Gable’s red cliffs on Prince Edward Island. That meant the book was shipped back to its home branch, with me never laying eyes on it.  I actually forgot about it for a long time, until I recently got another email from Josh, asking what I thought of the book.  Well, my first thought was “Crap!” as I had totally let it slip my mind. Back to the Arlington website I went, this time being sure to bundle up and trek over there as soon as I received the email notice saying that my selection had arrived.

It was worth the wait! (Twice.)

Habibi is the unconventional love story of Habibi and Zam. Neither of their lives follow traditional paths. Habibi is sold as a child bride, whose husband is soon murdered and she is sold into slavery. With a bit of wit and luck, she escapes her captors, but not alone. She takes with her a baby boy who has been abandoned by his mother. Together, the two of them live on a deserted boat that serves as both a physical and mental oasis for the pair. Habibi does whatever she must to provide for her young charge, nurturing him and providing a home for him.

Habibi and Zam aren’t living in a vacuum. As they mature, the age span that seemed so immense in their childhoods quickly evaporates. Habibi doesn’t recognize that an alteration is taking place and is shocked when Zam is suddenly not the little boy he used to be.  The unfortunate circumstances of their lives pull them apart from one another for years, at which time they individually go through huge physical and psychological transformations.  When their worlds suddenly collide again, they are no longer the people they used to be. Their childhood love still exists, but to repackage it into an adult love takes more out of them than they may have to offer.

The story told by Thompson is a stunning one, and would stand strongly on its own, but he couples it with an amazing artistic ability, turning a powerful tale into a magnificent work of art. Graphic novels are often overlooked as nothing more than long comic books; I know this attitude was prevalent among some of my fellow English teachers. I would challenge any of them to read this work and then see if they don’t reevaluate their former stance.

Habibi is the graphic novel genre at its finest.  The artwork not only supports the storyline, but it creates one of its own. Details add to the tale, providing information that words wouldn’t do justice. Thompson employs devices that may be easily overlooked by a causal reader, but add an incredible depth to the work as a whole. For instance, through the pattern and color of the margins of a given page, the reader can tell which of the many storylines is being told. This allows the story to jump between characters and settings with no written segue, just the visual one provided through the graphics.

This novel is beautiful- both the writing and the illustrations. I was hooked from the very first page, doing little other than reading from the time I cracked the front cover until the time I stared at the final page, wishing for more. I was drawn in by every aspect of this book and am thrilled to see a graphic novel reach this level of sophistication and splendor. Craig Thompson’s novel Habibi easily earns:

Cupid and Co.

Riding the shuttle to school; wandering the halls of FSI; scrolling down endless Facebook updates- three seemingly individual, daily tasks. Yet, all of these actions have been linked by a single connection today: Valentine’s Day. There are few holidays more divisive than the one based on love.  Whether you fall into the “love it” category, or the “loathe it” category, everyone seems to take a stand when it comes to cupids wielding miniature bows and arrows, heart-shaped boxes of mystery chocolates and small cardboard boxes of chalky hearts bearing messages of love.

I have vivid memories of the first year I had a valentine on the big day. I remember I was sitting in Mrs. Smith’s first grade class, carefully printing each letter of my spelling words, making sure the letters went from the top, strawberry layer of the ice cream cone all the way through the chocolate layer and ending neatly with vanilla. (Did anyone else learn to write on that paper as a kid? In the left margin of the paper there was a three-scope ice cream cone, the top and bottom lines were solid across the page and the middle one was dotted. Each line was a color that corresponded to the sweet treat in the margin. It was meant to help us make each letter the proper size. Maybe it has since been phased-out due to all of the sugar restrictions in schools today. Literacy and diabetes are not happy bedfellows.) I couldn’t wait to turn in my paper so I would earn a scratch-and-sniff sticker! (I know this may come as a total shock to some, but I was a bit of a goodie-two-shoes school. Not getting a sticker on my writing page or not getting to pick a treat from the treasure chest on Friday were both devastating disasters in my six-year old world.)

As I diligently completed writing out my spelling words, I heard Mrs. Smith call my name. She said I was wanted in the hallway! What?! Only kids who were in trouble got called in to the hallway. I wracked my young brain to figure out what I could have done to get in trouble. Did I finish my entire carton of white milk at lunch? Yes. Did I run on the blacktop during recess? No. Did I say something bad and someone told on me? Not a chance. What could it be?

With a pounding heart and tears threatening in the corners of my eyes, I put down my pencil, slid my tiny chair away from the desk and walked to the classroom door as if I were walking the green mile. When I got into the hallway, the school secretary was standing there with a bouquet of pink carnations. She told me they were a Valentine’s Day gift and that I should read the card. As I pulled the small rectangular envelope from the trident holding it in the vase, I was more relieved I wasn’t in trouble than I was surprised by the delivery. I had just turned six years old. I had no idea why someone would send me flowers- at school no less!

The card was written not in a penmanship that was ever taught on ice-cream paper, but one that I would come to know and recognize instantly on those florists’ cards. I would continue to get bouquets of flowers each year on February 14 all throughout my years of school and college and then when I had my own classroom. The handwriting was, and still is, my dad’s.

Once we started school, my sister, brother and I have received Valentines from my dad each year. Melyssa and I always get flowers (always carnations, as the roses were reserved for my mom) and Matt would usually get balloons and candy. When Matt married Kristina and I gained a sister, Dad gained another daughter, to whom he also now delivers flowers each year. As the family has expanded, Dad’s delivery detail has gotten longer. He now not only covers his own three daughters, but has a daughter-in-law, three granddaughters and two grandsons who also get to take part in this special tradition.

As I hear the naysayers complain about Valentine’s Day and how it is just another Hallmark holiday, it makes me realize how lucky I am to have always had a Valentine on this special day. As the drama of high school and boyfriends came and went, it didn’t’ matter whether had I that someone special to celebrate the holiday with (although I’ve been lucky to have another Valentine for the last sixteen years as well) there was always a vase of flowers waiting for me, making me smile and serving as just another reminder of how great my family is.

Happy Valentine’s Day Dad!

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Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Dear Chuck, are you there? It’s me, Michelle.  I’ve just finished your newest publication. I want to tell you that I enjoyed the sarcasm and wit of your novel, but worry that you are relying on gratuitous sexual images to draw in more readers. Your writing can stand on its own without that. Stick with your eccentric characters- it is your strong suit as a writer.

Chuck Palahniuk continues to push boundaries with his latest novel, Damned. The story revolves around Madison, a thirteen year old girl who must navigate her way through the social and cultural norms that make up Hell.  She comes from a life of privilege, her mother being a movie star and her father a wealthy investor. When death arrives unexpectedly, her homes all over the globe are replaced by an existence in Hell, where she is surrounded by mountains of finger and toe nail clippings, demons who can be bribed with candy and a job as a telemarketing market researcher. (I actually had this job for about eight months when I was in college. I got really good at asking people about the chips and cracks in their windshields and how people felt about a variety of political candidates. It really was hellish!)

Palahniuk is not known for treading gently over possibly touchy topics and he doesn’t attempt to garner such a reputation with Damned. Everything from the personal pleasure of mythical demons to where aborted babies end up is within the limits of his writing.  Witty and sarcastic and slightly sacrilegious can all be entertaining parts of a story, but when too much of the foundation is laid with them, the story itself gets to be a bit shaky.

Maddy and her fellow underworld dwellers are treasure troves when it comes to characters. They are all young, dead and energetic. As Maddy begins to explore who she is in death, it forces her to look back on who she was in life and where she lost her concept of freewill along the way. As the tale was wrapping up, I felt like I was just getting to a point with her where she was coming alive. (Terrible pun. I’m sorry.) Rather than dwelling on trying to be edgy, I would love to have seen Madison and the other characters progress through their personal transformations more thoroughly.

The book is definitely not for the easily offended. Once the reader gets past a bit of the vileness,  Hell fills itself out as a place not of fire and brimstone but of bats and insects and dethroned gods, it becomes an amusing place where most of us are slated to spend eternity. If you’ve ever left a bathroom without washing your hands, count yourself in. If you have exceeded the limit for how many times you’ve honked your car horn, you also have a one way pass. (This pretty much condemns all drivers in China.) It doesn’t take much for your soul to be condemned to working as an eternal telemarketer.

Gut-turning descriptions of Hell’s scenery aside, the book attempts to take an interesting look at what the afterlife might hold in store for the majority of Earth’s inhabitants.  The wit and sarcasm and satire are appreciated, but at times just seem to be trying too hard. Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned earns:  

Time to Suit Up

In the wise words of Barney Stinson, it is time to “suit up.”  With February whipping by like a winged cherub shooting arrows of love, our April leave date looms large. Each day, as I sit in ConGen, trying to mentally process the intricacies of non-immigration law practice, my mind often wanders to what needs to be done here and now to get us ready to go. While the front half of my flower and vine covered notebook is filled with refusal codes, ineligibilities and INA references, the back pages are devoted to lists that fall under headings such as “Consumables Shipment,” “Medical Kit”  “Shell Shopping” and “Thad Shopping.”

One of the top priorities falling under the “Thad Shopping” column was suits. Last spring, when he got his invitation to join the 161st A-100 class at FSI, we were only given a few weeks of notice.  We were able to make a quick run to the suit store and get him two full suits, which got him through the summer fine, but he’ll need more now that he is facing the world of business-ware on a daily basis. (Language training is much more casual at FSI, meaning a collared shirt is sufficient.  Unless he has business to conduct in DC, he doesn’t need to wear the full ensemble each day.)

Thad is not a shopper. And when he does shop, he is not a “try-er on-er.” He goes through the pile of shirts, chooses the color that most closely resembles everything else in his closet and buys it. (Or waits on a bench outside the store while I buy it.) This means, suit shopping, that requires not only a visit to the dressing room, but also consultations with the seamstress, is not his idea of a fun Saturday.  But, when Men’s Warehouse is having their “Buy One, Get One Free” sale, there is no getting around it. It is time to go suit shopping.

So Saturday, after a lazy morning around the house, we headed out with nervous glances at a gray sky that seemed to be threatening snow. We had two choices of stores- the one that is just a couple of miles up the road by bus, or the one across the river in the District just a block away from the Metro station. We went with the latter. So did half of northern Virginia.

Men’s Warehouse was a warehouse of men on Saturday afternoon. Their semi-annual suit sale drew in the masses, who like us, feel a little ill at the price tags dangling from the sleeves of name brand suits. Planning ahead, we wrote down the sizes of the suits he already has and we were able to get a good start on suit selection before a salesman made it our way. With a couple outfits in hand that he picked out and a couple more that I really liked, it was off to the back of the store, where the fitting rooms had just a bit of locker room whiff to them.  (Thad says suits aren’t outfits. I am not sure why. It is a full ensemble that matches. That sounds like an outfit to me.)

Once we had narrowed it down to a pretty (now he’ll probably never wear it) gray suit and one with an olive hue to it, it was time for things to get personal with the alterations department. Chalk marks were made, pins stuck in and measurements taken.

With Thad changing back into his preferred t-shirt and jeans, I met with the “stylist.” (This is a real job at Men’s Warehouse!  They have a woman who takes the suits you choose, and then displays them with a variety of shirts and ties to demonstrate which color combinations work best. While I could easily do this on my own, I applaud the company for their ingenious gimmick. I am sure they have sold countless shirts and ties through this process than they would have if they just let men wander the aisles and try to fend for themselves.)  Since we were in the dress shirt and tie market anyway though, the stylist and I worked through several combinations. By the time Thad joined us, I had the selections narrowed down and just needed his approval. (It doesn’t matter how awesome I think it looks. If he hates it, there is no point in bringing it home.)

Two suits,  six dress shirts, two ties and a hefty swipe of the debit card later, we found ourselves back out on the sidewalk, no longer glancing at a gray sky threatening snow, but rather standing in the flakes themselves as they came swirling violently around us.

Monday, when I head into my fourth week of consular training, as I flip from the data-filled pages of the front of my spiral notebook to the list-filled ones at the back, I will be pulling out my lovely purple ballpoint and crossing off the first of many lines in many lists- suits. That’s one “to-do” item checked off!

Next up? I’ve got no idea! Possibility just more additions to the already pending lists.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I don’t know. That is my initial response after reading Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! As a contender on many of the “Best of 2011” book lists, I initially thought that this novel would be a homerun, but it just goes to show how much subjectivity there is in the world of writing.

The book follows two main storylines: that of Ava Bigtree, a young girl who works at her family’s failing alligator-wrestling theme park and Kiwi Bigtree, Ava’s older brother who wants nothing more than to escape that same park and make a way for himself on the mainland. While these two characters serve as the baseline for the tale, they are filled out by Chief (the father), Hilola (the dead mother), Osceola (the other sister) and the Seths (the alligators.)

Ava’s story, while told with the mindset of a young adolescent, is written in beautiful prose. The elegant language, which seems a bit at odds with this rough and tumble tomboy of a character, allows the reader a more refined glance into the world which Ava inhabits than would be possible if it were told in the actual words of a kid. Through Ava’s eyes, we see her world crumble to pieces. After cancer takes her mother, the axis around which the whole family revolves and the park’s main attraction, nothing is the same. It is as if without the stabilizing force of Hilola, the family and business disintegrate into their individual parts, rather than continue to function as whole entities. It is in this confusion that Ossie begins dating ghosts and Kiwi escapes for what he imagines will be a better life on the mainland. At the same time, Chief disappears, leaving Ava, the youngest, as the sole guardian of Swamplandia!

Kiwi is the other character whose storyline is closely followed. The writing in his chapters was extremely different from that of Ava’s. It didn’t display the smoothness and insight that hers did. Rather, Kiwi’s story is rather disjointed and halting, mirroring the life he is trying to create for himself outside his family’s island. Kiwi considers himself well-educated (it is a self-provided education, coming from extensive reading, but without any feedback or discussion with others, making his full of random facts, but without utility behind the knowledge.) His attempts to fit in with the mainland kids and their way of life are uncomfortable to read. It is hard to imagine him ever fitting in in this new world, but as the book goes on and profanity spews from his mouth more and more readily, you realize that a metamorphosis is taking place. Eventually I felt as if Kiwi no longer held a place in either realm, making him an outsider with both his family and his new friends.

The part of the novel that I struggled with the most was Ossie and her ghostly relationships. As I read, I didn’t know whether my mind should wander towards the possibility that she was mentally unstable or whether Russell was going to take this into the realm of fantasy. I’m not good at the whole suspension of disbelief, so as Ossie and her dead fiancé head for the underworld, tailed by Ava and her Dante-esque guide, the Birdman, I just couldn’t decide how I should be interpreting the direction the story was headed. During these sections of the novel, I had a hard time enjoying the graceful writing and unique plot because I couldn’t take my focus off where this was all going. I kept trying to figure out what kind of twist would make this all possible in a novel that is otherwise set in a realistic realm.

Taking away the oddness of a search for the underworld off the coastline of the southern United States, this book had a touching core. The idea that the loss of the one person who holds a family together can make everything unravel is a painful one, but also one that plays out in reality on a regular basis.  Without Hilola to draw in the tourists, the alligator theme park is doomed for disaster. Without Hilola to draw together the array of personalities making up the Bigtree family, the family falls apart, with each individual drifting in his and her own direction. While we never hear directly from Hilola, as she is dead before the first page of the book, she is the character around which all the choices of the book revolve.

My original “I don’t know” still stands. There were parts of debut novel that I really loved and was drawn in by, but there were also parts that were just too contrived and weird for me to accept as a reader. I can see why some people loved this book, but for me, it falls into the category of being interesting, but not something I am likely to pick up and reread at any point. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! earns: