Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cannonball Read #5: Severance Package, by Duane Swierczynski

I grabbed this off the shelf at the library because I recognized Swierczynski as the former editor of the Philadelphia City Paper. Yes the title blows and the lame ass tag line makes me cringe, but I was dying for a fun thriller damn it, and this didn't let me down. Reading Severance Package (groan) is akin to reading a screenplay written by the coke-addled spawn of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino.

Unabashedly shallow, the book begins with short introductions to a number of characters, all who work together at a high rise in Center City. And BALLS, I already forget what the company was called and I stupidly returned the novel...well, it's a front for a sort of special ops/assassins training division of the government. In true Alias fashion, only a few of the employees know the truth about the people they work for. David, the head of the company, sets up a meeting on an early Saturday morning, only to reveal to the eight people there that all of them have been terminated. And not in the "Oh hell, now I need to relearn the art of cover letters" sort of way, but in the "Surprise! You work for the government, now drink this poisoned mimosa or I'll shoot your ass" way. What happens next is a frenetic exercise in survival, with the employees desperately trying to evade a super assassin while attempting to escape the building.

And that's about it. My true opinion of this book? Fun as hell. There's almost no character development to speak of, so when people start to die (in awesomely gory fashion) it's hard to care since there was never a chance of becoming emotionally involved with any of them. But the plot moves quickly, and there's a decent amount of humor, and I DON'T CARE it's cold out and I wanted to read about people being filleted alive by a wee Russian lady.

There was a recurring annoyance in Severance Package that at times made me want to set fire to Independence Hall. The author is a Philadelphia native, and though I always get a thrill when I see anything related to my beloved hometown, Swierczynski tosses out so many gratuitous Philly references that even I started to curse the land of Billy Penn. Within the first 50 pages he mentioned Market Street, Chestnut Street, Rittenhouse Square, Manayunk, the Liberty Bell, the Gallery, The Continental and various other restaurants, Liberty One, Liberty Two, the Eagles, and OH MY GOD WE GET IT YOU'RE FROM PHILLY, GAAAAAAH!!! A character brings cannolis to the meeting, but they can't just be anonymous cannolis, they have to be cannolis from The Reading Terminal Market. He even mentions The Khyber, my happy hour haven and unofficial Pajiban meeting place.

Despite the rampant homerism, this was a well-paced book that had me hooked early and didn't let up until the final page. And oddly enough, this is one of those rare novels that had me thinking "Hmm...I'd love to see a movie based on this."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cannonball Read #4: Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

I hate myself. The only cuddly vampire I want to associate with is this one:

Sarah already did an excellent and scathing review of Twilight, and honestly I don't feel like writing one. I was curious and masochistic. I was embarrassed to read it on the subway. And I stayed up until 3:00am on a WORK NIGHT so I could finish. I found Bella to be a spineless pushover, Edward to be creepy, and the writing to be shallow. And still I needed to know what happened next.


The plot? Mope, shiver, complain, ooh he's pretty, mope, stare, pine, his eyes are like topaz, perfect body, perfect hair, sparkle, almost kiss, sparkle, run really fast, mmm tasty people blood, order Bella around, obey, watch her sleep, inexplicable lack of restraining orders, CHISLED PERFECT PRETTY CHEST, sparkle, smell, run, fight, sparkle, prom.

The end. Now excuse me while I borrow the next one.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Cannonball Read #3: A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, by Jeanine Cummins

This book was written to honor two beloved young women who were brutally murdered, and yet it took me a while to come to that realization. At first I couldn't stop harping on how the writing style was basic and repetitive; I spent the first hundred pages wondering how this was published in the first place. Then I got the fuck over myself. The book was written because Cummins needed it to be written, for herself and for her family. It's a loving tribute to the cousins she lost and an honest look at the media and its effect on the families of the fallen.

The backstory is as horrifying as one can imagine. Cummins' two female cousins, 19 year-old Robin Kelly, her sister 20 year-old Julie Kelly, and Cummins' her older brother Tom spent the final night of their vacation together on an abandoned bridge in St. Louis. Four young men, between the ages of 15 and 19, also chose to spend that night on the very same spot. After initially befriending the trio, the group decided to turn back and rob the family members, seeing that they were in the mood "to hurt someone." As Tom is pinned to the ground by the youngest of the attackers, the sisters are savagely gang raped by the other three. Following their assault, the girls and Tom are taken by gunpoint and lined up on the edge of the bridge. And in a moment that I can not stop visualizing, both Robin and Julie are pushed off, plumetting 50-60 feet below into the raging Mississippi. Told that his options were to join them or be shot, Tom jumped off behind them. Both girls drown. Tom survives and eventually makes his way to the shore to flag down help.

Nauseating. And yet the ordeal doesn't end with the murders. As anyone who has had a loved one die a public death knows, the media are absolute vultures when it comes to grabbing that perfect moment on camera-the grieving the mother, the heartbreaking statements. I lost a friend in a highly publicized car accident in college (publicized because there were over 20 cars involved)-she and two young men in another car burned to death on the Schuylkill Expressway. The news stations flooded my small college, and only an hour after they identified her body the newscasters were asking anyone in their path how they felt and did they see the video of the fire? They came to the funeral, they tried to get a statement from her mother, they interviewed witnesses who discussed how they could hear her screaming in her car. Thanks you callous fucks, there goes any hope for her mother that she was unconscious before the fire. The press are an intrusion in every stage of your agony. The Kelly and Cummins family had to deal with their grief in the eye of the public, and later they had to witness the vilification of Tom after he was initially charged with the crime. Later, after the culprits are found and sentenced, the press focused on the attackers' stories rather than the two girls who spents their last moments in terror. The trial, the editorials written, the Ricki fucking Lake special, the documentary...all provoked sympathy for the murderers while nearly ignoring the victims, and further inflamed the anger and the anguish of an already broken family.

Cummins may not be the most seasoned writer but she imbues her memoir with honesty and candor that provides an intimate, almost voyeuristic look into her family's devastation. She shows a surprising amount of...well, not compassion, but a levelheadedness when describing the four teenagers who killed her cousins. She refrains from making sweeping generalizations about their character, and acknowledges their upbringing and social backgrounds that may have led to their unjustifiable behavior. I've never been able to get into the mind of someone who can commit an act of such brutality. How does that disconnect occur, when you can use a woman's body as a receptacle, commit the most invasive act on another person...and then kill them? Where are the thoughts of their feelings, their pain, what their families are about to go through? I don't get it. How do you rape a woman...and then laugh about it to her sobbing cousin? It makes my blood run cold. Cummins somehow addresses these questions without resorting to name calling and emotional outbursts, and these were her cousins... her friends. Her book could have been a public letter berating the assailants, and instead it's a well-executed dissection of the media and an opportunity to share the memories of two girls who were never given the time to make their mark on the world.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cannonball Read #2: Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safron Foer

Distraction can prove to be such a cruel bitch while I'm reading a novel. I'm a pretty fast reader, but I go through periods where almost anything can keep me from turning the page...people-watching on the trolley, current anxieties, imagining what life would be like as a piece of fruit (for the record? DELICIOUS). It took me a month to get through this one, despite my enjoyment...but I found myself actually distracted by the story itself. I couldn't stop imagining Foer's writing process. What made him name a character after himself, how did he get into the mind of Alex so well, did he research life in shtetls, etc etc. Foer has a knack for diving head first into his characterizations with a self assurance and buoyancy that is admirable in a writer so young. I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few months ago and was blown away by little Oscar and his heavy boots, so I was more than thrilled to finally read this, his debut novel.

Alex Perchov is a young Ukrainian translator hired by Jonathan Safron Foer to assist him in his journey to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Searching the desolate regions of the country for a place called Trachimbrod, they're accompanied by Perchov's grandfather, an old man tortured by his personal experiences of the war and the loss of his wife, and Sammy Davis Jr Jr, their equally beloved and reviled vodka drinking dog. The book is a story within a story within a story, but Foer manages to avoid alienating his readers by writing with a fluidity that effectively binds the different narratives.

The journey of the four travellers is recounted by Alex, while the rest of the book is written as excerpts of Jonathan's novel that conveys the life of his ancestors in the small shtetl. Tying these together are Alex's letters to Jonathan that act as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting and sometimes reproaching him for his writing style. Alex is a desperate-to-be-loved young man whose dialogue is a hilarious and often affecting mix of broken English and malapropisms. He was undeniably my favorite character; his honesty (which often bordered on lack of modesty) is punctuated with a sense of humor and an unfortunate grasp of the language that provides the novel's funniest moments. Declarations such as:

"If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with. I am homely, and also severely funny, and these are winning things. "


"I am unequivocally tall. I do not know any women who are taller than me. The women I know who are taller than me are lesbians, for whom 1969 was a very momentous year. "

had me choking with laughter on the subway. What was greatest about Alex is that through his letters you can witness him growing...as his language improves his innocence wears away. Best of all is his personal investment in the story of both Jonathan's great-great-I-forget-how-many-greats Grandmother Brod and his Grandfather Safran. It gives the book its heart and nearly echoed my own feelings toward the story. Everything is Illuminated is so rich with colorful characters and written with such grace and poetry that I was moved to tears more than once. Extremely Loud is still my favorite, but this book cements my belief that Foer is one of the most talented and exciting authors in recent memory. I can not wait to see what he does next.