Under the big umbrella.

Thoughts & sundry on writing, books, and other kinds of comfort food.
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April 9, 2014 at 11:09am
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Book Review: The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits

night-of-400-rabbits-book-review

GUYS. I do not even know what to say about this book.

Well, I do, actually. It was weird as hell, especially for esteemed mystery madame Elizabeth Peters.

A quick primer: Elizabeth Peters is the pen name of Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Barbara Michaels as well), and she’s well known for writing clever, adventuresome thrillers and mysteries with romantic and often gothic twists. Her heroines are realistic (exception: Vicky Bliss), her heroes are lovably Byronic, and her writing is superb.

Sadly, Ms. Peters passed away in 2013, so of course I have turned into some kind of mad creepy hoarder who is trying to space out the remaining books I haven’t yet read by her so that they last me the rest of my lifetime. (Yes, I have made peace with my weirdness.)

So imagine the scenario: I decide that IT’S TIME, lift one of my few precious unread Elizabeth Peters book from its pristine pile, open the cover, and… WTF, The Night of Four Hundred Rabbits?!

It starts off like most Elizabeth Peters (and many Barbara Michaels) mysteries do: an intelligent, naive-yet-proto-feminist young woman laments the dull trivialities of everyday life, and shares with us a relatable flaw or two before being whisked away to some exotic location where she’ll have to solve a mystery and fall for a brusque yet charming Byronic hero…

I didn’t want to talk about anything else but Danny… blond, blue-eyed, handsome, and brilliant…

Okay, so our heroine has a pre-existing boyfriend. That’s fine. It’s just unusual for Ms. Peters’ novels (where the heroines are generally fed up with men), and because of that, I think it’s important. More on this later.

We get to meet Danny a little further on in Chapter One, and he’s… well:

"You aren’t high, are you, Danny? Not now?"
His long, sensitive mouth—my barometer for measuring his moods—tightened, and then relaxed. "Honey, you are so hopelessly square. I don’t get high on pot. Nobody gets high on pot, they just get a happy glow. If you’d try it yourself… You know I don’t smoke when I’m driving." […]
"I’m sorry," I said humbly. 
"Don’t be sorry. Don’t ever be sorry."

Drugs? College-age protagonists? Off-kilter 1970s jargon? A female character who bows to the Almighty Boyfriend, who in this case appears to be at least somewhat emotionally abusive?

WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH ELIZABETH PETERS?

The novel, unsurprisingly, continues. Our protagonist, the rather drab and forgettable Carol Farley, receives a Mexican newspaper clipping containing a photo of her father—whom for years she had thought dead. (HOORAY! ADVENTURE!) So she and Danny zoom off to Mexico to figure out what’s going on.

But not before Danny has another rant:

"And he thinks grass is the devil’s weed."
"Oh," I said helplessly. That’s about all I could say. Any hint of ‘I told you so’ would have enraged Danny.
"That was all Hermie needed. He wouldn’t care if I got stoned on Scotch every night—so long as it was the best Scotch. But pot! No, no, bad boy!"

Danny is a treasure.

Actually, this is another first for Ms. Peters, whose characters are often so powerful because you love them. And you love them because she loves themeven the bad guys. She revels in every character she writes, delights in them, in their heroic moments and flaws alike.

But Danny is the first Elizabeth Peters character I’ve come across who creates a reaction of disgustan actual physical twinge—in my gut. As the novel progresses, he becomes more and more of a caricature, his actions more and more despicable. He is an emotionally abusive drug addict, and he is loathsome, and this is noteworthy for Ms. Peters, as I think Danny is the first character she’s ever written who she herself has actively hated. More on this later.

So anyway, they arrive in Mexico, and then DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS DRUGS. Seriously. Danny buys a bunch of drugs from some dude named Jesus, and then they…

***SPOILER ALERT***

…find Carol’s dad, who, in addition to being mixed up in a heroin ring, is really poorly written.

And (in addition to the drugs), that’s the next very non-Elizabeth Peters point about this book: overall, the characters act like inexpertly animated marionettes, jerky and halfhearted. I still can’t figure out what she was going for with the character of Carol’s father, George:

"Carol," the man said.
He moved forward…Tongue-tied, I struggled for a response.
"Carol? he said again; this time there was a questioning lift to his voice. He took another step forward. "It is you, isn’t it? You look just as I expected you would."
[…] I didn’t show my emotion; I was afraid of it. "Hello," I said, and held out my hand.
[…] There was an awkward fumble before our fingers met, and the clasp of hands was brief, by mutual consent.
[…] “Well. won’t you come in, both of you?”

Uh, what? You think your father is dead for years and years, you track him to Mexico… and when you find him, you SHAKE HANDS, and then he politely invites you inside his secret Mexican drug house like NOTHING IS OUT OF THE ORDINARY?

I’m an extremely empathetic person—too much so, sometimes. So it’s usually very easy for me to understand characters’ motives, take a walk in their shoes, all that good stuff.

But I am genuinely baffledby this exchange. Carol’s reunion with her father is a huge letdown. Even now in rereading it, I simply don’t get it. Why are they being so stiff and weird? It’s been revealed that Carol is a passionate person. Why is she acting like this?

Anyway. George has moved in with this hot lady and her hot son, both of whom have inexplicably Russian names despite being Mexican. (Seriously, the hot son’s name is Ivan Oblensky.)

Anyway. Weird, stilted dialogue follows, as does a tour of Mexican hotspots. Danny and Ivan do a bunch of drugs. They talk about legalizing pot. They talk about LSD and “snow” (heroin), as well as mushrooms and teonanacatl and peyote and dex and bennies and NO I AM NOT KIDDING THIS IS AN ELIZABETH PETERS NOVEL.

Many more drugs later, Carol realizes she’s being followed by a Mystery Man. Ivan’s hot mom tries to talk Carol into leaving town. Carol beings to suspect her dad is involved in the drug trade. She then goes to a party, where Danny does a bunch more drugs and makes out with some random girl (one of many steps into said loathsomeness).

The book trundles along much like our protagonist’s drunk/stoned/strung-out boyfriend, leaving us, like her, more than a little confused and disappointed…

Continue reading my review on my website, the Book Junkie Blog!

December 11, 2013 at 12:30pm
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Reblogged from acaseforbooks

The Critics' Best Book of 2013 →

acaseforbooks:

image

There are a lot of “Best of” lists to look at around this time of the year so I rounded up 20 of the most prominent lists that are already out and here are the books that are mentioned the most:

1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
2. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
3. The Lowland by Jhumpa…

October 28, 2013 at 3:27pm
2,250 notes
Reblogged from theparisreview

A literary influence is never just a literary influence. It’s also an influence in the way you see everything—in the way you feel your life.

— Thom Gunn (via theparisreview)

3:26pm
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Reblogged from theatlantic
theatlantic:

Writing For Free

"Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" is the kind of headline that is guaranteed to get you attention on the Internet. And so, my little corner of it was ablaze yesterday with its central question: Is it right to write for free?
This discussion typically ping-pongs between two extremes: (1) It’s deeply unjust and insulting to ask people for free work, including free writing; and (2) If you don’t want to write for free, then just don’t, end of story. These are easy and attractive answers, but the question is deeper.
Read more. [Image: Reuters]

theatlantic:

Writing For Free

"Slaves of the Internet, Unite!" is the kind of headline that is guaranteed to get you attention on the Internet. And so, my little corner of it was ablaze yesterday with its central question: Is it right to write for free?

This discussion typically ping-pongs between two extremes: (1) It’s deeply unjust and insulting to ask people for free work, including free writing; and (2) If you don’t want to write for free, then just don’t, end of story. These are easy and attractive answers, but the question is deeper.

Read more. [Image: Reuters]

September 17, 2013 at 9:43pm
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What it’s about.

"It’s not about the work," countless people told me before we set off for our mission trip to Jamaica. "It’s all about the people, not the work you’ll be doing."

That’s a great thought, but it’s not entirely true. For me, so far, the work is what has stood out the most.

Let me explain.

I’m not a strong person, physically. I didn’t grow up on a farm, and I work behind a computer all day.

I also have a fused spine, which limits my lifting capability to 50 lbs, prohibits my lungs from fully inflating, and more.

So what I’ve taken away from this trip so far is just how physically limited I am.

The work we’re doing here at the village has been pretty strenuous manual labor — digging and shoveling rocks into buckets, lifting and dumping said buckets of rocks, digging trenches, mixing and dumping concrete by hand — and I’ve tried to keep up.

But I can’t.

What this means is that I’ve learned a lot about myself and my physical limitations this week — or perhaps I’ve simply come to understand them better.

I wanted to fit in — even more so, I wanted to help, and do an equal share of the work. So I keep pushing myself to try and make that happen. I keep doing anything to keep from having to admit to those working so hard around me: “I am not strong.”

Or worse: “I can’t do this.”

If you’ve never faced a physical limitation, I can’t explain to you the deep sense of shame and humiliation that comes from being expected to do something quite normal — and then failing at it. Especially if other people (with normal, functional bodies) are watching.

I fully realize the irony (or is it appropriateness?) that comes from experiencing this realization in a village for the deaf. Especially in Jamaica, a country where the deaf are maligned to servitude or worse within their own families, where they face an unemployment rate of 80% and are called “dummies” by the general population.

We all suffer for our limitations, be they physical or otherwise. In feeling shamed by my own disability, I have discovered a humility I never would have in the U.S., where nothing beyond my ability is ever required of me.

I also have a greater respect and admiration not only for the hard work and strength of my mission team members, but for people who do this kind of work day in and day out throughout their entire lives.

So what I’m feeling right now is humbled, right down to my core, which is probably precisely what one should feel on a mission trip. I just hadn’t known that it would come to me in this way.

Which, when you get right down to it, is probably the point.

September 13, 2013 at 2:28pm
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Writing & travel.

I always feel like a writer—a real writer—should be well-traveled. Should have been to Paris at some point, or sipped tea in Morocco. Or whatever.

But I’ve never traveled. Being relatively poor, I haven’t had the opportunity. I’ve never felt like a real writer. (Shh. That’s a secret.)

BUT. Now I get my chance.

Tomorrow, I leave for a service project in Jamaica, where I’ll be working with tiny deaf children. I don’t know quite how to feel about it yet—some part of me is quite certain it will be a Milestone, but I don’t know what that necessarily means.

However, everyone I’ve talked to who’s been on a trip like this says it changes you. 

But will it change my writing?

August 14, 2013 at 8:03pm
3 notes

Cormac McCarthy’s Three Punctuation Rules →

"McCarthy stresses that his minimalist approach works in the interest of maximum clarity."

May 6, 2013 at 9:37pm
1 note

Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.

— 

George Saunders

Is this good writing advice?

April 30, 2013 at 8:30am
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What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms.

— 

Kobayashi Issa

It’s spring. Breathe it in.

April 23, 2013 at 10:11am
4 notes

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome.

— 

Derek Walcott

That day will come.

April 8, 2013 at 10:17am
2 notes

When one is striding bravely into the future, one cannot watch one’s footing.

— Elizabeth Peters, in the voice of Amelia P. Emerson, who might just be my favorite literary character ever.

March 22, 2013 at 4:00pm
269 notes
Reblogged from theparisreview

A book can be represented as a conversation with one’s demon.

— Patrick O’Brian (via theparisreview)

March 18, 2013 at 8:37am
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Books may well be the only true magic.

— Alice Hoffman

March 11, 2013 at 8:30am
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Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods

March 10, 2013 at 9:30am
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They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

— The Bible; Genesis 37:19-20 (NSV)

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