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:



A Little Super Bowl Halftime Reading

The big day has arrived. It is Super Bowl Sunday. (Or Super Bowl Monday for our soon-to-be-colleagues in Chengdu. I hear there is a pre-work party with bagels and muffins!) After a crushing season in the Fantasy Football league, losing a playoff spot for Playing in Stilettos by just one game, I am ready to wrap this season up.

The Super Bowl is a fascinating slice of Americana pie. A section of our pop culture is put on display for the world to see, from the massive build-up to a game that never seems to live up to its hype to the obsession over commercials hawking everything from beer and pizza to luxury cars and stock portfolios to the constant complaints about how bad the halftime show is/was/will be. (Who could the league hire that wouldn’t draw endless complaints? I mean really.  When you’ve got half of the American population watching the same concert, how will you ever come up with an artist that satisfies all of them? You won’t!)

I, too, will be watching the match-up between the teams today. (Who are they again? Seriously. That is the level of attention I pay. This may be why the lovely Stilettos didn’t make the playoffs, yet again, this year.) While I don’t follow the NFL closely, I do have a few suggestions for ways to improve this end-of-season party.

My proposal takes the end reward for winning the game and works backwards to reach a better form of entertainment, leading to that prize.  What coveted award is given out to the victorious team? Rings. Big, expensive, diamond-laden, sparkly baubles to adorn the giant sausage-like fingers of the players who propelled their team to the number one spot in the NFL.  We are talking jewelry here people.

I propose, if jewelry is what is at stake, we come up with a contest more fitted to that trophy. Much like the Miss America candidates who vie for a tiara, I think the professional football players should also show us their jewelry-worthy skills.  So, with that in mind, here is what I propose:

Super Bowl Sunday still exists, but rather than settling the dispute with sweaty piles of gigantic dudes fighting over a piece of animal hide, they give us a fashion show.  That’s right. A fashion show.  It is a fitting way to earn their rings.

I suggest the teams go head to head in four categories- home, away, wild card and mascot.  Each round will serve as a quarter, so the Super Bowl maintains its roots in football. The home outfits will be modeled by the offensive players, while the away outfits are donned by the defensive players. (On a personal level, I would suggest teams shy away from the white pants. Something metallic or dark does a much better job of hiding that embarrassing jock-strap line.) Those quarters are pretty easy to picture, and possibly pretty easy on the eye, depending on who the reigning quarterbacks are. The wild card round will be shown on the special teams players. These outfits are determined individually by each team. They could be throw-back uniforms or ones worn during October’s profusion of pink games or they could be something more creative, like futuristic uniforms. Of course, the fourth and final round goes to the mascots. These guys will take to the runway to demonstrate not only their level of team spirit, but also the type of mascot will be judged. (Personally, I am a fan of the weird balloon ones that can jiggle and bounce around, but as I am not an NFL sanctioned referee, I don’t get a vote.)

Obviously, the team which scores the most points overall, after the completion of all four quarters, will be declared the winner and be presented with the coveted Super Bowl rings. They will be bling-tastic, just as they are now. The winning team can still choose an MVP who will announce they are going to Disney World and could be featured not only on the front of the Wheaties box, but his face could also shine on the cover of Glamour.

The rest of the NFL season will stay the same, with kick-offs and run-backs and field goals and sacks and interceptions and all the other football-y stuff that makes up each game. The only change to the league’s procedure would be to the season finale and how those players earn the most sought-after prize in American sports- the Super Bowl ring.

Think about it. We are an hour away from watching dozens of grown men battle one another for a diamond encrusted bit of beautiful glory. Runway show- it could work!

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin

Scored by Lauren McLaughlin

We live in a world where, in many cases, numbers dictate who we are. It starts in kindergarten when IQ tests are administered. Travelling through grade school, those numbers become how many words per minute the child can read and how accurately a Mad Minute math test can be completed. Heading into middle school and high school, the focus shifts to percentage scores and GPAs defined to the hundredth of a point. Throughout the years of schooling, throw in mandatory state testing as required by No Child Left Behind, and a shot or two at ACT and SAT scores. Add all of those numbers up and what you get is a judgment on most any kid in America.

Looking at society from this point of view, Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored really isn’t far-fetched at all. In this young adult novel (Another one, I know! I promise a review on a different genre soon.) ScoreCorp, a national company has found a way to utilize the ubiquitous cameras monitoring Americans on a daily basis to create a scoring system for adolescents.  Families are not required to enroll their students in the program, and a few of the wealthy families are privileged enough to not have to, but for most families in the not-so-distant future Massachusetts clamming community, the Score is the only chance their kids have at any semblance of upward mobility. With a high enough score, students are given automatic scholarships to college, which puts an education and future in reach of kids who would otherwise be left with whatever service-industry job they can cling to in the economically depressed region in which they live.

Imani, the protagonist of the novel, has always strived to keep her score above the scholarship line. She works hard, follows all of the rules and hopes that will be enough to earn her a scholarship to study marine biology. When the monthly score reports are posted and she drops from the mid-90’s to the 60’s, she realizes that her friendship with Cady is the problem. With only a month before final scores are posted and lifetime trajectories are set in stone, Imani knows she must do something to get her score back to its previous standing.

When the opportunity to enter a scholarship essay contest is presented by a teacher, Imani thinks she may have solved all of her problems- until the teachers says she must write about why the Score is bad for society. Imani believes whole-heartedly in the score and the opportunities it affords those without monetary advantages. To write against the score is to write against everything she believes in.

Eventually, Imani is forced to turn to Diego, a wealthy, unscored classmate whose lawyer mother is famous for fighting legal battles against ScoreCorp, for help. Their relationship isn’t one of friendship, but of mutual need, as he too is entering the contest, but must write about how the Score has been beneficial to society.

The premise of Scored is one that should resonate with many young adults.  Feeling constantly monitored and judged is a pretty universal part of being a teenager in America. The book has a strong foundation and delves fairly deeply into both sides of the argument towards a true meritocracy system. I appreciated the references to 1984  and Brave New World (hoping that maybe a teenager or two goes to the library and picks them up out of curiosity), as well as the snarky comment early in the book  aimed at No Child Left Behind. The place where McLaughlin’s novel falls short is the unnecessary love story propagated by the relationship between Imani and Diego. I was disappointed that their intellectual connections weren’t allowed to stand on their own, but rather had to morph into romance.  It would have been great to have strong female and male characters that were able to stand on their own as individuals and not need a bit of Cupid’s arrow thrown in at the end.

This young adult novel was a quick read, weighing in at just 160 pages. The story moves quickly, but has a depth uncharacteristic to such a short book.  It can be read as just another dystopian novel, enjoyed and set aside without another glance. On the other hand, it would also make a great classroom novel. I can just imagine some of the great discussions that students could have about how society stratifies itself now and whether the world envisioned in the book is a step forward or a step backward.  Lauren McLaughlin’s Scored earns:

Here Comes the Bride

Bridal showers. Baby showers. Even rain showers. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m good with them all, as long as games aren’t involved. Throwing a shower for someone is a great way to help them get off to a great start on a new era of her life, whether it is because of impending nuptials or the arrival of a squawking bundle of joy.  This past weekend, I had the opportunity to help plan and throw a wedding shower for two very good friends.- John and Lulu.

John and Lulu met in China while he was a Peace Corps Volunteer. (Shout out to Peace Corps China!) Before he returned to the States in late May to begin the Foreign Service Officers training, in the same class as Thad, he asked Lulu to marry him.  Their engagement had to be a long distance one for the next half a year, as he was here in DC doing his training and preparing to head to Taiwan on his first assignment and she was home in Guizhou province in China. Luckily, John was able to fly to China over Christmas, where they were married, and return with Lulu to start their new lives together.

We not only wanted to help this wonderful couple put together the foundation they will need to establish their own home, but we wanted to welcome Lulu to America with open arms. What is a better way to do that than throw them a traditional wedding shower?

Along with Molly and Jessica, I set about putting together a small gathering for John’s friends and FSI classmates. We were able to reserve the activities room herein Crystal City Oakwood, which was the perfect size to hold the roughly twenty-five people who came to celebrate.  As invitations went out, we not only received an overwhelming number confirming attendance, but also numerous offers to bring food and drink to the party. It was wonderful to see so many people happy and excited for John and Lulu, wanting to contribute to the festivities as a way to honor them and their marriage.

As Saturday rolled around, in true worrywart fashion, I was awake with my mind reeling at 6:30 in the morning, a mere four hours before the commencement of any activity. As I lay in bed, I had these terrible thoughts about what if I didn’t really reserve the room (even though I knew I had, since I had checked with the front desk on several occasions to be sure it was on their calendar), what if no one came (ridiculous, as our RSVP list was extensive) and what if we don’t have enough food and drink for everyone (again, ludicrous since we ended up with enough left over to do it all again!) ?

Needless to say, the morning went off without a hitch. There were balloons and streamers and garland; there were cookies and muffins and salmon mini-sandwiches and cupcakes and veggies trays galore; there was hazelnut coffee and regular coffee and juice and limeade and champagne; there were wrapped gifts and bagged gifts and enveloped gift cards. There were no games.

That, my friends, is the best part. No games. The bride was not embarrassed by having to wear bows on their head, representing the number of kids she would have. There were no wedding dresses or veils made from toilet paper. There were no awkward moments where the groom has to try to remember what color of toothbrush his blushing bride uses.  There just a lot of eating and a lot of chatting and a lot of friends spending time together in recognition of a fabulous new couple.

I am pleased to have been able to be a part of the planning for this occasion.  While a shower isn’t the same as a full-blown wedding, it was a great way for us to all gather and extend our wishes for happiness to John and Lulu. Saturday’s event was a success, thank to everyone who helped plan, who helped provide food and who helped set-up and take down.

Next up? Baby shower for Rory!

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